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Study looks at comprehensive help for self-represented parties

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Access Commission logoEvery county should have a program to help self-represented litigants (SRLs); libraries are, or can be, excellent resources for people going to court on their own; and legal forms and court procedures need to be simplified for pro se parties.

There also needs to be a statewide standard defining the difference between providing legal information — such as help filling out and filing legal forms — and legal advice that only a lawyer may provide, as well as a statewide glossary with plain English definitions of common legal terms.

Also, expanding self-help programs can be a boon for lawyers, as such a system will serve as an intake procedure, screening those who don’t need or can’t afford a lawyer, while providing a valuable referral source for clients who need limited or full representation.

A year-long study of how self-represented Floridians fare in the state’s court system yielded those and other findings and recommendations. The study was commissioned by the Supreme Court’s Commission on Access to Civil Justice and was conducted by Katherine Alteneder, executive director of the Self-Represented Litigation Network, and Eduardo Gonzalez, a project consultant with the network.

It was funded by a Justice for All grant from the Public Welfare Foundation and the National Center for State Courts. Florida’s grant made it possible to reach out to those who provide non-traditional access to civil justice and give voice to the concerns of Floridians who cannot otherwise afford legal representation.

The full report, written by Alteneder and Gonzalez, can be found at: https://www.flcourts.org/content/download/633407/7196991/file/voices-in-the-civil-justice-system.pdf.

“The Justice for All Initiative supports innovation and collaboration to address civil legal needs throughout the country,” said Justice Jorge Labarga, chair of the Access Commission. “I am proud of Florida’s past efforts to advance access to civil justice in our state and know that the perspectives and recommendations advanced in this report will serve to further strengthen our work.

“Capitalizing on partnerships with non-traditional justice stakeholders and more fully understanding the needs of self-represented litigant court users are keys to success in reaching the aspirational goal of 100% access to civil justice. The report provides important considerations and tangible recommendations that the commission will examine in the coming months to further support its dynamic long-range plan.”

The 108-page report has been submitted to the commission, which was to consider it at its April 16 meeting, canceled because of the coronavirus epidemic.

“The focus of this study was not to assess or evaluate the many excellent access to justice activities underway in Florida; rather, it was to capture the user voice and … identify the systemic changes that would have the potential to strengthen the SRL legal help infrastructure within the state of Florida, and create a possibility of sustained user informed work,” report said.

Among the report’s recommendations:

• Set up full-service self-help centers in every county — in courthouses and libraries — along with statewide standards or guidelines for operating those centers.

• Create a statewide, plain English glossary of legal terms: “This glossary would become the source document for plain language used in forms, instructions, and other resources, including additional languages,” the report said.

• Increase the number of non-lawyers who can help self-represented litigants and provide a statewide uniform standard and training to distinguish between legal information that can be provided by non-lawyers, and legal services that must be performed by lawyers. Establish a statewide working group to coordinate such services and make sure they meet standards.

• Set an identity or “brand” so that wherever help comes from — a clerk’s office, law library, law offices, legal aid, community programs, or civic or business leaders that people tend to ask for advice — Floridians know the information is uniform, vetted, and trustworthy.

• Add a law library representative to the Commission on Access to Civil Justice. The report found that law libraries provide extensive and valuable, if largely unheralded, help to pro se parties.

• Have clerk and court personnel work with senior service and disaster relief programs, which frequently are sought out by self-represented litigants before they go to court.

The report’s authors visited six Florida counties — Bay, Polk, Sumter, Marion, Orange, and Miami-Dade — and made a total of six trips across Florida gathering information. That included watching pro se litigants in courtrooms; holding focus groups with self-represented parties; interviewing clerks, law librarians, lawyers, judges, court staff, and others; and interviewing “nontraditional stakeholders” such as senior citizen assistance programs, disaster response agencies, community leaders, and others where Floridians might turn when seeking help when navigating the legal system on their own.

The recommendations were based on several specific findings, which included:

• Self-represented litigants feel they are at a disadvantage and consequently question the fairness of the legal system. Those feelings are intensified when they do not get an easily understood explanation of what to expect from the process, and they “are deeply frustrated, stressed, and fearful of court processes and procedures.”

• SRLs prefer a mix of online and in-person help, prefer one-on-one assistance, and typically know what level of help they want. “In-person triage and referral are highly valued and sought after, but only if someone has been able to find someone who is knowledgeable, trustworthy, and willing to help. SRLs are often just seeking simple assurances that they must complete the task in front of them or get help with computers or other office equipment,” the report said.

• “SRLs identify the court, clerk, and law library staff as the most accessible and trusted gateway providers. Easily identifiable self-help centers, which are by definition welcoming, are highly valued,” the report said.

• Pro se parties and nontraditional helpers, such as senior citizen and disaster relief programs, find online resources confusing and are uncertain where to turn for trusted information.

• Those nontraditional providers and the legal profession are unaware of how prevalent SRLs are in the courts (a Miami-Dade single-day study found 60 percent of family law cases and 80 percent of domestic violence cases had SRLs).

• It can be traumatic for clerk and court staff and law librarians who help self-represented litigants because those litigants are often emotional, face high stress situations including poverty and despair, and are frustrated by the lack of plain language forms and instructions, combined with the fragmentation of existing services.

The report identified a five-stage “continuum” of how people access the legal system, although it also said there are not clear boundaries between the stages. The five steps are: unassisted self-represented parties; self-represented parties who get legal information help from clerks or court staff offices, online chats, law libraries, or other programs; self-represented parties who use legal navigators to get more detailed legal information about filling out and filing forms and court procedures; self-represented parties who hire attorneys to handle limited parts of their case; and parties who hire lawyers for full representation.

“SRLs are likely to move throughout the continuum during even only one case,” the report said. “A person may use unassisted self-help to learn about his or her legal problem before hiring a full-representation attorney — and when the money runs out, the formerly represented person will become self-represented.”

The report said lawyers frequently and wrongly view self-help programs as competing for their services. Instead, it said, those programs should be viewed as intake, helping those who don’t need or can’t afford an attorney and providing referrals when the client needs full or limited legal representation, instead of legal information.

“[T]he help SRLs seek from court-based resources is mostly emotional, administrative, and procedural in nature. This is not attorney work,” the report said. “Moreover, many of the people who are self-represented are not the part of the market share lawyers are seeking as clients – either their problem is not a fit or they do not have the appropriate financial profile for the practice. Instead of conceiving of self-help as undermining attorney profit, the bar may benefit from a pivot that considers self-help as a powerful screening and referral pipeline.”

The report also found, “Every SRL observation in this study involved the SRL asking for assurance from a trusted person; however, over and over again providers were fearful of whether they were safe in sharing any information that they had to do with a court case, and there was no clear guidance or training upon which they could rely,” the report said. “The more data collected, the more evident it became that human navigation help was perhaps a more important service in the eyes of the consumer than the actual legal information dispensed….

“[I]n legal matters basic information, referrals, and reassurance will also have a direct impact on court and clerk operations. This role is probably better fulfilled by non-lawyer legal helpers than lawyers because the work is mostly about information, referrals, and reassurance.”

Those concerns by parties were exacerbated by difficulty in understanding legal language, which was compounded by fear that the slightest technical or procedural error will doom their case, the report said. In one case, a woman seeking a divorce was concerned because forms and directions referred to dissolution instead of divorce. In several others, parties did not know whether to refer to themselves as the petitioner, respondent, or other term.

That also played out in staff in clerk, court, and law library offices spending much time “translating” forms and directions into plain English for users.

Another issue is despite resources, such as the Florida Courts Help App, providing detailed written instructions, parties, who are often highly stressed and pressed for time because of work and family obligations, don’t take the time to read those directions and instead go directly to filling out forms.

The study also found that pro se parties are confused when they must go to different offices to get help with various kinds of cases, such as eviction, family law, and consumer debt, and that experience with one type of case, say a landlord/tenant matter, was substantially different from another, such as a divorce of child custody matter. That included being surprised that while some types of cases could be resolved quickly, others might take months or even years.

The report found “that consumers want simplified, plain language services, procedures, documents and resources, and that their most pressing needs are often met by providing easily understood information in right-sized pieces, with accessible support that includes online resources, helpers, navigators, and lawyers.”

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