Access commission studies self- and limited-help programs for pro se parties
Access to legal services for everyone, regardless of income, isn’t just an aspirational goal but an achievable one, according to a national expert on legal self-representation who has been hired to conduct a study for the Supreme Court’s Commission on Access to Civil Justice.
Katherine Alteneder, a lawyer who helped Alaska design a statewide access system and now is the executive director of the Self-Represented Litigation Network, was at the commission’s recent meeting to discuss the study she’s undertaking for the commission on how to meet the legal needs of pro se parties.
The study is being paid for by a $30,000 Justice For All grant the commission received last year from the National Center for State Courts. It’s expected to take about a year.
“The research on self-represented litigants will give the commission valuable insight.. . . I think the powerful potential of this project now is how it will allow us to work toward concrete, effective solutions based on the actual experiences of people who face barriers to accessing justice,” said Justice Jorge Labarga, chair of the commission. “We look forward to hearing the [initial] results in August at the Commission’s next meeting.”
Alteneder said there are some principles learned from her experience in Alaska and in other areas that will guide the study.
One is the “critical role of the user voice,” or recognizing the perspective of the self-represented litigant. As an example, Alteneder said often the first question asked of a pro se party is what form they want — while the person may not know the answer.
Better, she said, to begin with a series of questions which will elicit the information on what form is needed, and those questions can even be asked with a self-help computer program.
Another is to recognize the difference between legal advice and legal information. The former can be provided only by lawyers, Alteneder said, but many times parties need only legal information to solve their problems. Some may need limited advice from lawyers and can do the rest themselves, she said.
Also included is the goal of doing “upstream” work, which Alteneder defined as working with self-represented litigants to make sure they are prepared when they get to court, so precious court and judicial time isn’t wasted, and judges can decide on the issues.
In Alaska as a law clerk, she helped create the first pro se forms responding to the overwhelming number of self-representing parties in family law, housing, and consumer debt cases — “the cases that go to the foundational fabrics of people’s lives,” as she put it.
The focus was on forms and processes that made sense and were friendly to the users.
The next step was to create self-help centers throughout remote towns and village in Alaska. Since many of those towns did not have lawyers, that required creating a network of “legal helpers” who could assist the pro se parties. That required identifying who town residents relied on for other help and services, which turned out to be social workers, school nurses, librarians, tribal leaders, and small business owners. So those people were cross trained, Alteneder said, to provide legal information and help with forms.
The next step was to develop guidelines for unbundled services from lawyers in cases where clients needed or could afford only limited attorney help. That also required identifying when parties needed legal advice as opposed to legal information and that helped triage cases, Alteneder said.
She eventually left the state court system and opened her own private practice to test the concepts of the program, especially in providing limited or unbundled advice.
It worked, Alteneder said, and she found herself in the enviable position of having “no receivables, at all, because of the efficiencies that were gained with the resources that we had available.”
The Florida study, she said, will have five “buckets” or components:
• An “observational study” of how pro se litigants fare in courthouses. “Observation when it comes to self-represented litigants is a gold mine of information to where people are getting stuck and what we can do about it,” Alteneder said, adding sometimes that can be as simple as telling people how to get to the courthouse, get through security, and find the right courtroom.
• Study how “legal navigators” work, or those who assist self-represented parties as they wend their way through the legal system. That can reveal the common problems “so that we can. . . put ourselves in the shoes of people trying to help self-represented litigants and learn what the issues are,” she said.
• Have focus groups with self-represented litigants to discuss their experiences, including those with limited English skills.
• Based on those initial efforts, conduct a statewide survey about legal access.
• Have focus groups of “nontraditional stakeholders,” those who might influence or assist self-represented litigants.
Alteneder, the Bar’s Frank Digon-Greer, who provides staff support for the commission, and Andrew Johns of the Office of the State Courts Administrator recently traveled to Ocala, Orlando, and Miami to meet with court and clerk personnel. They discussed services needed by pro se litigants, what is being done now to help them, and attended court cases involved self-represented parties.
“We met with clerk and court staff who deal with pro se litigants, including case managers and staff from [courthouse] self-help centers,” Digon-Greer said. “We also observed courtrooms where pro se litigants were on the docket; basically, family law cases, divorce, and child support cases.
“One topic that came up was the staff is always cautious about unlicensed practice of law. We also met with law librarians, since they deal with a lot of pro se litigants as well.”
More information about Alteneder’s Self-Represented Litigation Network can be found at its website, SRLN.org.
The website describes the organization as “a network of innovative lawyers, judges, court staff, legal technologists, librarians, and other allied professionals who believe everyone deserves access to justice. We are working to transform the American legal system so that every person who faces a civil legal issue can get the legal help they need, understand court proceedings, and get a decision on the merits. We accomplish this by advancing innovative, evidence-based access-oriented solutions such as comprehensive court and legal aid self-help services, simplified court rules and procedure, and integrated systems that efficiently and effectively connect people who need lawyers to lawyers.”