f/k/a archives . . . real opinions & real haiku

December 13, 2003

Improving Self-Help — Theory & Practice

Filed under: pre-06-2006 — David Giacalone @ 6:42 pm

Jerry Lawson and Richard Zorza keep giving us post after post at elawyer blog on trends and resources for making legal services more accessible, affordable and client-friendly.   Earlier this week, we followed Jerry’s pointers on outsourcing (a topic he re-visted today) and on judges and pro se litigants.  Today, I want to second Richard’s recommendation of the Self Help Support website, which he called “An important new site on innovations in access to justice funded by SJI [State Justice Institute].”  


The Self Help Support site has a Library of resources (over 400 items) that “all relate to developing, running, and improving programs for the self-represented litigant,” plus a “What’s New” section with links to new studies, proposals and ethics developments, and articles in the news touching on self-help issues.   Following my new positive approach to legal ethics, I want to highlight two articles I mentioned in the SHS “What’s New” column, one of which looks at the theory behind the growth in support for self-help law and one of which describes a practical approach being used by volunteer attorneys.

The first article is Helping the Pro Se Litigant: A Changing Landscape, by Paula Hannaford-Agar, which appears in the Winter 2003 issue of Court Review.  Ms. Hannaford analyzes the response of the judicial and legal community to the chronic accessibility problem facing low- and moderate-income consumers.  As she puts it:   

“Judicial and legal policy makers have gradually come to the realization that there will never be enough affordable legal services to meet the demand for full legal representation for all eligible individuals. Given existing budgetary constraints, a 400% increase in funding for legal services is highly unlikely. Similarly unlikely is a dramatic increase in pro bono activity by lawyers, a dramatic decrease in legal fees, or a return to the barter system of an earlier era in which clients could pay for legal assistance with their own goods or services.” . . .

“It should be no surprise, therefore, that increasing numbers of people choose self-representation as the only feasible option for securing necessary legal rights and remedies. In recognition of the reality of litigants’ needs, the courts and the legal community have slowly shifted from insistence on full-representation for every litigant as a fundamental requirement of equal justice to a more pragmatic approach, offering information and limited counsel for those litigants who are capable of managing their own cases and reserving full-representation for those with more complex cases or fewer personal resources.”

In discussing this shift in outlook, the article explores the need to distinguish between providing legal services (which must be done by lawyers) and providing legal information (which can come from a number of other sources), in constructing solutions to the access problem.  Ms. Hannaford presents a thoughtful analysis that fills in some of the history and theory behind the assertions in my posting of July, 15, 2003, “Pro Bono is Not the Answer to the Access Problem (Self-Help Is),” which concluded that “the most effective way to improve access to the American justice system is to spend public and private dollars and resources helping consumers solve their own legal problems, rather providing lawyers for them.” 


The second article presents the very good news that members of a bar association in St. Louis County, Minnesota, along with court administrators, have taken this insight to heart and created a volunteer program that will help people represent themselves in the local court.  ( New volunteer attorney program helps people represent themselves, Duluth News Tribune, by Mark Stodghill, 12-03-03).    According to the Duluth News Tribune, the “Ask the Attorney” program will provide a volunteer lawyer at the courthouse the first and third Wednesdays of each month.  Although the “lawyers in the Ask an Attorney program will not represent you in court, will not enter into an attorney-client relationship and will not fill out pro se paperwork,” the program will provide a half-hour free session in which the lawyer can:

 – Define the steps to represent yourself in court.

 – Help you understand the legal process you will go through.

 – Suggest available alternatives.

 – Refer you to a legal clinic or modest means legal service program such as the Volunteer Attorney Program, which charges no fee or a low fee for income-eligible people.

The formerly cynical ethicalEsq was fond of asking when bar groups were going to start helping people represent themselves.  So, this is a very welcome development, although a small one.

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