Pro Se Clerks in the Federal Courts — A Base for Self-Help Innovation

The Third Branch, with official news from the Federal Courts, has an interesting piece on pro se clerks in the Federal system.

The core point: the court staff put in place to deal with prisoner petitions are now working on a much broader range of cases.  As the piece puts it:

“So many of the skills pro se law clerks develop handling prisoner petitions come in handy in other types of pro se cases,” said Judge Catherine Blake in the District of Maryland. “Our pro se law clerks have developed forms and the instructions to go with them for pro se filers. They help pro se litigants navigate the system. They save chambers time with initial screening and help judges identify the cases that have merit. They also do a great job of keeping up with changes in case law. For instance, they’re familiar with the legal issues involved in habeas cases. They absolutely save us time and promote efficiency. ” In fact, in the District of Maryland, pro se law clerks are called staff attorneys to better reflect their status and level of experience.

This is a really interesting development, because it means that there is in place a base on which much more comprehensive services can be built.  It is similar to the story in California in which the family court facilitator program was leveraged to put in place the network of self-help centers meeting much broader needs.

My own view is that there are very significant differences between state and federal courts when it comes to solving the access problem.  Many federal courts are still very short of the kind of forms that are needed to obtain access — although it is great to hear that this problem is being addressed.  Moreover, it is my sense that many more self-represented  cases are being disposed of before a hearing or decision on the merits because of the highly complex procedural requirements in the Federal Courts.  As a consequence, it seems to me that some the most effective federal court programs are those that include one form or another of unbundled brief service advice.

During the Self-Represented Litigation Network EJC Pre-Conference on May 18 we will have a session exploring these topics.  There will also be a full session on Federal Court Self-Help Services at the EJC itself.

In particular, I hope we will be able to explore how state court self-help programs can reach out to the Federal Courts with an eye to closer collaboration in the enhancement of services in both of our systems.


About richardzorza

I am deeply involved in access to justice and the patient voice movement.
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