“Federal cases are difficult for litigants, who are anxious to begin with and understandably confused by what is a complicated legal process. Even when their cases are potentially meritorious, without legal advice it is very easy for litigants to make mistakes that compromise their cases,” said Tarnofsky. “Thanks to the support of the SDNY, the NYLAG Pro Se Clinic is off to a great start.”
Despite courts’ and commentators’ optimism about these reforms, there has been no publicly available empirical analysis of the effects of these reforms on case outcomes in pro se litigation thus far. There is some literature discussing the impacts of pro se court reforms in a more general sense,74 but that literature does not focus on the effect on case outcomes. This Comment seeks to fill that gap by providing an initial analysis of how reforms implemented by courts thus far have impacted case outcomes for pro se litigants.75
A number of commentators have trumpeted reforms at the trial court level geared toward assisting pro se litigants as a possible solution.8 These reforms usually aim to give pro se litigants access to resources and information that can help them successfully navigate the legal process, reduce their costs, or provide them with assistance from courts’ offices.9 Examples of reforms that have been implemented include providing pro se litigants with access to electronic filing systems that make it easier to file lawsuits and monitor proceedings, allowing pro se litigants to communicate with law clerks about their claims and proceedings, and publicly disseminating information about resources that may be available to pro se litigants through the court or third parties.10 Critically, these reforms can be implemented by the trial courts and their staff and do not require significant additional contributions from attorneys, clinics, or other legal institutions. Accordingly, these programs can help pro se litigants without diverting legal resources away from other causes, including indigent criminal defense. A large number of federal district courts have already implemented at least some of these procedural reforms aimed at helping pro se litigants.11
Additional studies that help determine the extent to which differences in access to counsel are responsible for the gaps in case outcomes between pro se and represented litigants, especially across a broader range of types of cases, would also be useful. If differences in access to counsel explain differences in case outcomes, the legal community should be more fearful that those without adequate resources are being deprived of meaningful access to the legal system. Moreover, if communities that lack the means to gain access to counsel lack effective legal recourse, despite sometimes having meritorious claims, then the legal community should also worry that bad actors can gain by depriving those communities of legal rights without facing the deterrent effects of litigation. Concerns about exploitative employers may be heightened if more than 2 percent of pro se plaintiffs have fully meritorious claims but only 2 percent of those plaintiffs can effectively seek relief due to difficulties navigating the legal system. Conversely, if lack of access to counsel does not explain poor case outcomes for pro se litigants, perhaps the legal community should focus on other considerations, such as making pro se litigants feel that they have received a fair chance in court and had their grievances heard, rather than trying to narrow the gaps in case outcomes or provide lawyers for more pro se litigants.
The lack of civility among lawyers is a frequent topic at bar association meetings. Canon 7 of the American Bar Association Model Code states that a “lawyer should represent a client zealously within the bounds of the law.” Many lawyers blame an over-enthusiastic reliance on Canon 7 for what they consider a rising tide of lawyer incivility (or bullying) that characterizes modern litigation. Commonly-cited examples include:
Shauna Strickland. Virginia Self-Represented Litigant Study: Summary of SRL-Related Management Reports for General District Court, Juvenile & Domestic Relations Court, and Circuit Court. (December 2017). This report describes case management reports that OES should consider producing on a regular schedule in an effort to better understand cases with self-represented litigants.
Pitting pro se litigants against lawyers as if lawyers are enemies does far more disservice to your clients. I looked at your website, and I see that you toe a fine line between practicing without a license and simply giving pro se litigants enough rope to hang themselves. I understand that it’s a gimmick to make money for yourselves, but the nobler thing to do would be to direct these people to pro bono services instead of guiding them to shooting themselves in the foot by acting like the opposing party’s lawyer is out to get them and that what they don’t understand about the practice of law is somehow a trick or deception.
“In little more than a year the clinic has built confidence in the justice system for many pro se litigants. Our legal staff and volunteers have been able to make the process less confusing for clinic visitors and guide them in the right direction, which improves their chances for satisfactory outcomes,” said Robyn Tarnofsky, the director of the clinic.
*** LEGAL DISCLAIMER I am licensed to practice law in the State of Michigan and have offices in Wayne and Ingham Counties. My practice is focused in the areas of estate planning and probate administration. I am ethically required to state that the above answer does not create an attorney/client relationship. These responses should be considered general legal education and are intended to provide general information about the question asked. Frequently, the question does not include important facts that, if known, could significantly change the answer. Information provided on this site should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed attorney that practices in your state. The law changes frequently and varies from state to state. If I refer to your state's laws, you should not rely on what I say; I just did a quick Internet search and found something that looked relevant that I hoped you would find helpful. You should verify and confirm any information provided with an attorney licensed in your state.
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Taking part in a recent ribbon cutting in Brooklyn are, from left, Lynn Kelly, executive director of the City Bar Justice Center; Debra L. Raskin, New York City Bar Association president; Chief Judge Carol B. Amon, Eastern District of New York; Magistrate Judge Lois Bloom; and Nancy Rosenbloom, director of the Federal Pro Se Legal Assistance Project.
According to the National Center for State Courts 2006 report, in the United States, many state court systems and the federal courts are experiencing an increasing proportion of pro se litigants. Estimates of the pro se rate of family law overall averaged 67% in California, 73% in Florida's large counties, and 70% in some Wisconsin counties. In San Diego, for example, the number of divorce filings involving at least one pro se litigant rose from 46% in 1992 to 77% in 2000, in Florida from 66% in 1999 to 73% in 2001. California reports in 2001 that over 50% of family matters filings in custody and visitation are by pro se litigants. In the U.S. Federal Court system for the year 2013 approximately 27% of civil actions filed, 92% of prisoner petitions and 11% of non-prisoner petitions were filed by pro se litigants. Defendants in political trials tend to participate in the proceedings more than defendants in non-political cases, as they may have greater ability to depart from courtroom norms to speak to political and moral issues.