The Central District of California Bankruptcy Court has released its report on the self-represented.
Self-represented, or pro se, litigants comprise over one quarter of the debtors filing in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Central District of California. In early 2011, the Court identified serving this population as one of its key strategic issues, focusing on ensuring proper access to justice for self-represented parties and measuring their impact on the Court’s resources. Since that time, we have embarked on a careful review of the Court’s approach to assisting self-represented parties, and expanded and implemented programs and systems to be more effective in this area.
They have the numbers: “The Central District of California led the nation in bankruptcy filings in 2011 with 134,501 filings. About 28 percent of our filings are filed without an attorney, compared to about 9 percent nationwide.”
They have the impacts on actual cases and the court — see the charts:
They have the programs — including staff training:
Despite efforts to direct more Court users to the website for the breadth of information provided there, it would appear that the majority of the self-represented still seek personal assistance from Clerk’s Office and Chambers staff. The Court has tried to address this by training staff to be as effective as possible in answering questions without providing legal advice. In 2011, the Court’s annual Winter Education Seminar included a presentation to staff on distinguishing between questions that ask for legal advice and those that ask for procedural advice. A presenter from the Federal Judicial Center led the discussion, and attendees were provided electronic polling handsets to weigh in on each of the 50 most common questions from the public that were submitted by the Clerk’s Office. The presentation encouraged staff to improve their customer service skills by answering as many questions from the public as possible, provided that the questions are procedural in nature.
And, perhaps most important of all, they are moving forward with new projects, including new instructions on proof of service (a huge problem in many courts), video instructions, and the possibility of a call center/live chat approach.
They are one of the pilot sites for the e-filing for the self-represented project:
The Pathfinder Electronic Filing Project seeks to:
- Provide an online option for self-represented parties to file bankruptcy.
- Increase the number of resources available to self-represented parties (e.g., literature, website, onsite computer terminal support, etc.) and ensure that the public is made aware of the resources.
- Broaden customer service to assist and complement pro bono organizations and their self-represented debtor clinics.
- Reduce fraud by BPPs.
- Provide outreach to educate self-represented parties, while reassuring attorneys that their client base is not being targeted.
This summary only scratches the surface, and I urge all to read the Report in full. Its not only a model for solutions; much more importantly, it shows what a court can do when it makes the decision to focus leadership and resources on this problem. Kudos for all, and let’s hope that we see more of this, not just in Bankruptcy Court, not just in Federal Court, but throughout the system.