what have they done for me lately?

4

[This is a pre-launch posting. We will soon finish construction and “go public.”]

The State Justice Institute‘s 2005 Pro Se Summit Report contains the following comprehensive list of the types of court-based services, systems, and strategies that are being used in various locales across the country, as they build their Self-Help and Pro Se assistance programs [see The Future of Self-Represented Litigation: A Report from the March 2005 Summit (State Justice Institute, 2005, Richard Zorza, Esq., pdf. 146 pages) :

Program Descriptions (at 17 et seq of the pdf document)   courthouse1

Public Information, Training and Assistance Programs

Courthouse Concierge Desk: A staffed courthouse concierge desk service provides welcoming and directing services to all who enter the courthouse. This service is frequently staffed by volunteers and can provide additional assistance services. The service fundamentally changes the face of the court to the world.

Self-Help Websites: Well designed and comprehensive self-help websites have proven themselves to be highly effective means of providing the information component of access to justice. After initial development costs, they can distribute information widely with little marginal cost other than ongoing updates and maintenance. They facilitate partnerships with appropriate access points.

Self-Help Centers: Self-help centers have proved themselves as highly effective at increasing litigant satisfaction, helping litigants prepare for court, and may improve court functioning. They consist of programs in which court staff and others provide information on a one-on-one basis or in workshops about court procedures and the law. While not providing formal advice, and while not involving the creation of attorney-client relationships, their ability to deal one-on-one with litigants goes way beyond the provision of general information.

Law Library as Resource Center: Law libraries have become major sources of assistance and support to self-represented litigants. The staff are often expert in finding the law, and can assist litigants in using tools to find and understand the law.

Multi-Lingual Written Informational Materials: A disciplined program to produce a full range of needed general descriptive information materials is a crucial component of any general access to justice program. Such information can be distributed through a wide variety of technologies, makes possible the effective use of volunteers, and helps force consistency on the court itself. They should be multi-lingual and include community resource listings.

Videos/PowerPoint Slides: Many programs find that video and PowerPoint training materials are helpful in establishing and maintaining low marginal cost court preparation programs. These materials can show what court is like, introduce the court players, lessen intimidation, and introduce key legal concepts. They are particularly appropriate for those populations for whom written materials are less effective. PowerPoint presentations are less expensive to produce and can be changed more easily than video formats.

 

Community Outreach and Access Programs

Library and Community Access Points: Experience has made clear that many of the materials and programs developed in the court or legal aid context can more flexibly be accessed by many individuals in environments in which there are supportive individuals. Sometimes the issue is simply one of physical access, sometimes of help with the computer, sometimes language, sometimes understanding. A wide variety of community access points can help meet this need, and provide significant leveraging use of materials and on-line information already developed.

Workshops and Training: Group help programs, often combined with individual support, have proved a cost effective way of walking individuals through complex paper procedures, and preparing them for relatively simple court proceedings. The design of these programs varies widely, from a simple general presentation, to a multi-part series that includes line by line support for filing in forms and preparing testimony.

Mobile Self-Help Centers: A mobile self-help center has proved an effective, although expensive, way of communicating the commitment of a court to community outreach. Carrying materials and staff support to a wide variety of organizations and locations, the message of openness is clear. It allows programs to serve communities that are physically distant from the court.

 

Gateway Services in Support of Case Starting / Responding  

Initial Assessment Processes: Initial assessments are increasingly coming to being seen as critical to effective delivery of services. Current models are supported by referral resources at self-help centers.

Forms and Documents: Simple, easy to use and self-help friendly forms and documents are indispensable for an access to justice environment. Such forms and documents facilitate entry into the dispute resolution system, provide better data to decision makers, speed the overall process, and increase comprehension of the whole system.

Document Assembly Software: The core concept of document assembly is software that walks users through branching questions to complete forms which are then printed out or filed electronically. Among the advantages are the ability to provide support as people complete the forms, avoidance of repetitive information, and focus on the areas of information needed.

Customer-friendly Electronic Filing: Electronic filing, if correctly implemented, can make it easier for litigants to file pleadings and obtain access to justice. To obtain that result, the electronic filing system must be designed from the ground up for ease of use by lay litigants. A poorly designed system may increase rather then reduce barriers to access. It is noteworthy that most of the state-level electronic filing initiatives that are succeeding are access-oriented systems.

One-on-One Assistance: More experienced self-help centers are using staff and pro bono attorneys to provide more intensive one-on-one assistance. While falling within the limitations governing the particular person providing the help, they are of more assistance than group or counter-based service delivery.

 

Jurisdiction-Wide Support Practices

Form and Process Standardization: There is broad agreement that standardization of forms across a jurisdiction is a critical first step in opening the system to those without lawyers. Such standardization makes software and form design investment possible, raises the overall level, allows for instructional information, and facilitates training and program support.

Rules in Support of Unbundling: Often innovation in unbundling is held back because of fears that it violates ethical rules. These fears focus on the legality of the practice itself, on conflict of interest requirements, and on the risk of being pulled into court to complete a case. While these fears are largely unfounded, innovators have found that enactment of rules clarifications along the lines of those proposed in the ABA Ethics 2000 process can make a huge difference.

Rules in Support of Court Information Programs: Many jurisdictions that create court-based self help programs have found that it is helpful to enact rules that clarify the precise responsibilities of the staff of these programs.

 

Courtroom Practices

Attorneys available to assist / expedite: A courtroom based screening and support program, in which attorneys review the cases of each self-represented person before they appear, can help build a good collaboration between the court and the self-help or legal aid program, and facilitate the functioning of the court.

Self-represented litigant-friendly judicial practices: There is increasing understanding that a truly self help friendly court must change not only the processes that lead up to the courtroom, but also the way the courtroom itself is conducted. Judicial officers and those that work with them are beginning to think of ways to manage the courtroom so that neutrality is enhanced by making the systems work for all, regardless of whether they have a lawyer.

Immediate written order upon decision: There is emerging agreement that for those without lawyers, it is better if, whenever possible, there is an immediate decision, in writing at the end of the hearing. This makes it easier for the parties to accept finality, and obtain the services they may need for the next step.

 

Post-Order Practices

Enforcement Support: Many programs agree that they have been better at giving people information at the beginning of the case than they have been at helping them at the end. They are beginning to explore the creation of programs focused on support for enforcement of already issued orders. This will increase overall compliance and satisfaction with the court.

 

Court Management and Evaluation Practices

Review of Rule and Procedure Simplification: Rule and procedure simplification ultimately benefits the court, the self-represented litigant, and counsel and his or her client. While such simplification depends ultimately upon broader rule making bodies, each court can review how it handles cases and asses the need for each practice from the ground up.

Broad Training of Courthouse Staff: Self help programs should not be regarded as an “add-on”, but should be considered as a core service. Training should be provided to all courthouse staff so that all feel responsible for the effective functioning of the system for those without lawyers.

Development of Interpreter Programs: Interpreter programs, while expensive, are critical to access to justice. The absence of such programs, while harmful to all, is particularly debilitating to those who must proceed without counsel.

Litigant Satisfaction Surveys: Litigant satisfaction surveys are a major tool to re-orient the court around the needs of litigants, since they help change the court culture. The process is usually as important as the data.

Data Collection and Evaluation: Leading self-help friendly courts find that ongoing data collection and evaluation are critical to success. Ideally such a program is supported by a researcher, but even modification of the case management system so that it provides aggregate data about self represented litigant cases is of great value.

Court as Convener for Innovation: Courts are coming to realize their unique power to act as convenors. Their legitimacy is without peer in the community, and their neutrality broadly trusted.

 

Jurisdiction-Wide Strategic Practices

State and Local Task Forces on Self-Represented Litigants: Such task forces are in place in many jurisdictions, and are playing a major role in spearheading innovation. High judicial involvement or support is critical.

Self-Represented Litigant Strategic Plan: Such task forces find that a multi-component strategic plan assists in maintaining focus and building consensus. Such a plan also facilities ongoing self-evaluation.

Access to Justice Needs Studies: Such studies have helped change the political and financial climate, since they show the breadth of need, and the breadth of the constituencies served by change.

Access to Justice Impact Statement Requirement for Changes: An access to justice impact statement is the requirement that any procedural or other change within the authority of a particular decisions maker must be assessed for its impact on access to justice, including on self-represented litigants.

 

Jurisdiction-Wide Support Practices

Form and Process Standardization: There is broad agreement that standardization of forms across a jurisdiction is a critical first step in opening the system to those without lawyers. Such standardization makes software and form design investment possible, raises the overall level, allows for instructional information, and facilitates training and program support.

Rules in Support of Unbundling: Often innovation in unbundling is held back because of fears that it violates ethical rules. These fears focus on the legality of the practice itself, on conflict of interest requirements, and on the risk of being pulled into court to complete a case. While these fears are largely unfounded, innovators have found that enactment of rules clarifications along the lines of those proposed in the ABA Ethics 2000 process can make a huge difference.

Rules in Support of Court Information Programs: Many jurisdictions that create court-based self help programs have found that it is helpful to enact rules that clarify the precise responsibilities of the staff of these programs.

4 Comments

  1. shlep: the Self-Help Law ExPress » Blog Archive » lawyers appreciate pro-se-friendly courts

    December 29, 2006 @ 3:33 pm

    1

    […] they must, therefore, renounce action that opposes self-help assistance (in a misguided attempt to preserve the financial interests of the legal profession), and instead must use individual and organized efforts to promote and create adequate, integrated self-help resources in every court (see, e.g., resources and strategies discussed here, here, and there) […]

  2. shlep: the Self-Help Law ExPress » Blog Archive » our self-help link collections from 2006

    January 6, 2007 @ 3:56 pm

    2

    […]    If you want to know more about the kinds of services and projects that exist to help persons who appear in court without a lawyer, see the materials discussed in our posting on court-related self-help tools and the best practices for the self-represented.  For help in finding such services in your state or locality, see our getting self-help help page, and the list of self-help Gateways in the SideBar.   […]

  3. shlep: the Self-Help Law ExPress » Blog Archive » Best Practices Guide from SRLN

    January 10, 2007 @ 5:41 pm

    3

    […] And, see our post What Have They Done for Me Lately? […]

  4. j. kench

    April 16, 2007 @ 6:23 am

    4

    in marion county oregon as a pro-se defendant in civil matters where the county was plantiff i have found the courts very prejudicial, as an example when the county enforcement official was called to testify the judge excused him without asking me if i wanted to cross examine. When i asked if i could ask questions he begrudgingly consented. the witness was not required to return to the witness stand but alllowed to give testimony while seated next to the county legal counsel at the plaintiff table regardless of my objections. Furthermore, the whole truth and nothing but the truth was ignored as a requirement of testimony. It seemed to me that this was a preplanned routine and it would be of interest to see if similar routine has been practiced in other pro-se hearings. Furthermore the plantiff(legal counsel) was asked for testimony wthout any swearing in or oppourtunity for cross examination.

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