Trials & Litigation

Self-represented litigants perceive bias and disadvantage in court process, report finds

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Self-represented litigants in family court have the onus of figuring out how to use the a system that wasn’t designed for their use, making them feel as if they are at a disadvantage or experiencing bias, a new study has found.

The Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System interviewed pro se litigants in family court in four counties in Oregon, Colorado, Tennessee and Massachusetts to learn more about their experiences, according to a press release. The group interviewed 128 self-represented litigants and 49 court professionals.

The group’s Cases Without Counsel study (PDF) found that the self-represented litigants generally wanted legal assistance, but it wasn’t an option because of the cost and other financial responsibilities. For many of these litigants, free and reduced-cost legal services were not readily available. A few litigants shunned lawyers, however, because of negative perceptions or bad past experiences.

The litigants’ perception of disadvantage was heightened when judges told them they needed a lawyer. Others reported that they felt as if they were bound to lose when facing opposing counsel, or when the opposing lawyer and judge appeared to be on friendly terms. “I knew that I was totally overmatched,” one litigant said.

Litigants turned to the internet and other resources for help, but the information didn’t always address topics clearly. Some court staffers are more helpful than others, but the “fuzzy line between legal information and legal advice” poses challenges, the report said.

The paperwork can be overwhelming for such litigants, according to the report. Forms are helpful, but many litigants are unclear about what information should be included. The litigants also struggle with how to present their case in court as they try to deal with evidentiary matters and courtroom procedures.

Some litigants simply gave up rights rather than deal with the court process. In any event, self-representation can result in negative outcomes with the possibility of affecting children involved, the report concluded.

The IAALS developed a series of recommendations (PDF) based on its interviews. They include: assign a liaison or navigator to help guide litigants through the process; provide additional resources such as flow charts, instructional videos and self-help centers; create online document assembly programs for court forms; simplify the court process and court forms; and provide guidance for court staff on providing legal information.

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