I invited Katherine Alteneder, my replacement as coordinator of the Self-Represented Litigation Network, to bring us up to date on the potential impact of the very important recent ABA survey on Self-Help Centers. This is her guest post. I hope the first of many.
We have reached an important milestone in access to justice for the self-represented. According to a recently released The Self-Help Center Census: A National Survey (the Census) by the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services, the majority of states offer court-based self-help centers that collectively serve an estimated 3.7 million people annually. As the Census illustrates, the approximately 500 self-help centers currently in existence are a vibrant and effective resource deploying a wide array of delivery mechanisms offering consumer centric services that meet the needs of low-moderate income people throughout America in both urban and rural settings. In addition to these 500 court based self-help centers, according to the April 2014 Law Library Survey issued by the Self-Represented Litigation Libraries Working Group, we also know that there are at least 150 libraries providing a range of services to self-represented litigants throughout the country. The types of services provided to self-represented litigants include:
[S]ome type of in-person services, document assistance and web-based information. Less commonly provided services include in-person workshops, interactive web-based forms, web or videoconferencing workshops, video or online tutorials, email or online responses, and referrals to pro bono attorneys and attorneys providing unbundled services.
The momentum, innovation and determination of courts, libraries, legal aid and the bar to join together to fulfill the affirmative obligation of ensuring all litigants have meaningful access to the courts, regardless of representation status, has been truly remarkable and in significant part made possible through the leadership of the Conference of Chief Justices / Conference of State Court Administrators who in 2002 passed a resolution In Support of a Leadership Role for CCJ and COSCA in the Development, Implementation and Coordination of Assistance Programs for the Self-Represented. Their blueprint for action as articulated in the supporting white papers from 2002 and 2000 continues to be as relevant today as when written.
However, as the Census also reports, there remain a significant number of states that do not yet have self-help centers, and few provide statewide services. The issuance of this census represents a galvanizing moment for the creation of a movement to get to 100% access to such services.
Moreover, only 15% of the respondents indicate that their community has a limited scope lawyer referral panel.
We know from years of experience, supported by available research in jurisdictions with well developed self-help centers that these centers work. The vast majority of legal issues presenting are simple and litigants can get adequate and appropriate assistance through a lawyer supervised self-help center. We know from our research that clerk’s offices and court rooms become more efficient when litigants have access to self-help. We know that public trust and confidence in the courts increases with access to self-help centers.
But, while self-help centers are very effective for that vast majority of problems, they don’t get us to 100% access. A remarkable 81% of the self-help centers turned people away because the matter was too complex or the center did not handle the case type presented. So what’s the solution for helping those with complex problems but who cannot afford full representation? When probed further, the overwhelming majority of respondents indicated that customers would benefit from limited scope services as the litigants often face very specific obstacles in preparing their case on their own, such as, “what exhibits should I bring and how do I get them admitted,” or “what are the consequences of my decisions now.” These are some of the many moments when legal advice is critical. Unfortunately, only 18% of responding self-help centers reported having access to an unbundled attorney referral list. Given the sophistication in the range of services now offered in many self-help centers, it is frankly surprising that the linkage to private counsel has not yet been made effectively in more jurisdictions.
Ten years ago many states might have said that, under attorney ethics rules, it was impossible for a client to buy legal services on an a la carte basis. This is not the case today, as most states have changed their rules or recognized that existing rules posed no barrier to providing unbundled or limited scope representation, and many have adopted special rules to encourage and facilitate unbundled practice. The challenge we face today is one of systems design and relationship building. Bar Associations and Courts must work together to help lawyers realize a new and viable business model and to give the self-represented litigant access to unbundled lawyers via a referral mechanism that can be used by the court based self-help center.
The Self-Represented Litigation Network, leading advocates for an accessible and integrated justice system, has made a commitment to help facilitate the development of self-help centers in every state by 2020, and to ignite local and regional dialogues on how to connect self-represented litigants with attorneys providing limited scope services. This is a moment of great opportunity and we look forward to the community action and dialogue. We urge that every state begin a discussion about how to introduce or expand self-help services, and to identify the national assistance that would help them do so.
Thanks, Katherine. All I would add is that national access organizations should also rise to this challenge and think about what commitments and contributions they can make to the same goal.