First Reports of Survey of Federal Court Self-Represented Litigation Services

As the Federal Court blog puts it: “The Judicial Conference Committee on Court Administration and Case Management (CACM) asked the Federal Judicial Center (FJC) to survey chief district judges and clerks of court on the assistance their district courts provide to pro se litigants.”

I do not believe that the Report has been published yet, but here are some of the highlights, as reported by the blog, Third Branch.  The data generally shows a broad range of recognition by District Courts of the need for such services, and indeed of steps to address the need — this is a very good sign for the future.

The clerk’s office often is the best place for a non-prisoner pro se litigant to find a handbook or information package developed to help pro se litigants. Eighty percent of the 90 district court clerks responding to the FJC survey reported that their districts make such materials available at the clerk’s office. For prisoner pro se litigants, 70 percent of the responding districts will mail them a copy of such materials. Need to know about local rules and procedural forms? The information is readily available, usually on a court’s website.

Eighty-four percent of the clerks reported that their districts provide free public access to computers in the clerk’s office. On these computers, 67 percent of the districts provide access to CM/ECF. Half provide access to their own website and to PACER. While computer access is free, most courts charge a fee for printing from the computers.

In 41 percent of the district courts responding, non-prisoner pro se litigants may file electronically through CM/ECF, and in 39 percent of the courts they may access the docket and pleadings in an on-going case through CM/ECF. A small percentage of courts, 11 percent, also provide e-filing software on the public access computers to assist pro se filers in preparing pleadings or other submissions.

. . . [A] little over half of the district courts appoint counsel to represent a pro se litigant for the full case, with 56 percent of the districts also appointing counsel in limited circumstances, such as in a mediation or trial. Fifty-five percent of the districts do both. A quarter of the districts have a provision in their local rules for payment of costs. Forty-nine percent of the courts conduct a review to determine the need for counsel. A third of the courts also provide pro se litigants with handouts or a web notice about obtaining free or low-cost legal services or information about retaining an attorney. Local rules or general orders in 14 percent of the districts require pro bono service from members of the bar; 21 percent maintain pro bono panels or lists of attorneys willing to serve on a pro bono basis. A small number of courts maintain an automatic e-mailing list to alert the bar to a case needing representation. Altogether, 90 percent of the ninety clerks responding to the survey report that their districts have taken one of these steps to help pro se litigants find pro bono counsel.

Finally, as to the future:

According to the survey, 30 of the 90 respondents reported that their districts are currently developing other measures to assist with pro se litigation. Many will revise, expand, or create information items or systems—for example, update handbooks, and create a pro se website. Others will expand or create various forms of personal assistance—for example, create a pro se help desk staffed by pro bono attorneys, develop a more formal pro bono panel, and create a more formal mediation process. Nine of the respondents indicated their districts are exploring use of e-filing. One district is setting up a Pro Se Committee to deal with issues raised by the public and the bar. The CACM Committee hopes that the FJC survey findings, with examples of programs and services provided by district courts, will prove useful to courts looking for more ways to help their pro se litigants.

The gathering and publication of this data will be an important milestone for the Federal Courts in their dealing with the self-represented.  At a minim, they indicate that many District Courts are becoming more sensitive to the needs of the self-represented, and consider themselves to be responding.  Obviously, however, the statistics raise  more questions as they answer the threshold ones.  The reporting, for example, that so many courts have procedures to assess the need for appointment of counsel is very encouraging, but raises the question as to what the standard for appointment of counsel is — does this really mean that in many of the Districts there is a “right to counsel” in meritorious cases?

The data on information available is similarly encouraging — now we need to figure out how District Courts can make sure that these are as good, as comprehensive, and as “plain language” as possible.  Its a lot easier to do that when, as we now know from this Survey, there is a practical consensus for the need for such information.

It is very much to be hoped that the identification of many of these services (some of which are discussed in detail in the blog post) will help lead to the formal identification of Best Practices, and to the development of mechanisms to make sure that these practices go from being “Best” to being “Standard” and then “Foundational.”


About richardzorza

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