SJI promotes court-based solutions to address increases in self-represented litigants; specifically making courts more user-friendly by simplifying court forms, providing one-on-one assistance, developing guides, handbooks, and instructions on how to proceed, developing court-based self-help centers, and using Internet technologies to increase access. These projects are improving outcomes for litigants and saving valuable court resources.
New Mexico Court Navigator Project
The New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts is developing two court navigator pilot projects to assist self-represented litigants in a variety of civil cases. These pilots will operate in an urban court and a rural court and will provide a range of assistance including scribing, procedural information, and reviewing forms for completeness. Navigators will be drawn from non-profits, community colleges, law schools, and retired attorneys. The project also includes an evaluation of the pilots.
Franklin County Municipal Court Self Help Resource Center Enhancement Partnership
The Franklin County Municipal Court has a Self Help Resource Center (the Center) which works daily to improve the quality of court filings filed by pro se litigants, increase access to the justice system for individuals who cannot afford attorneys, and provide a positive point of contact between the Court and the community. Through this project the Center will contract with a licensed social worker, who will then supervise a team of social work interns to multiply the impact and reach of the services. The Center will work to build public awareness and confidence in the services offered through media and public service announcements. The program will develop an evaluation plan, including surveys for visitors and partners, to share with stakeholders, and ultimately build a plan for sustained funding at the conclusion of the project.
Medical Debt Online Dispute Resolution
Medical debt is a national crisis confronting patients, health care providers, insurers, and guarantors of payment for medical services. The Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) is developing an online platform to resolve medical debt disputes starting in Hamilton County, Tennessee, and ultimately expanding to similar programs statewide. The goal of the project is to create an easy-to-understand application of how technology, legal assistance, meditation, and judicial resources as needed can provide a model for pre-court filing resolution services. The project will serve as a pilot for online dispute resolutions across the state in many areas of legal claims, in addition to medical debt.
Prefiling Landlord/Tenant Online Dispute Resolution
The Iowa Judicial Branch is implementing a prefiling landlord-tenant online dispute resolution (ODR) pilot in Story County, Iowa, to increase access to justice and effectively triage cases for residents involved in the rental housing market. In addition to the ODR platform, a Housing Coordinator will be hired to develop an inventory of community resources and housing assistance programs and provide legal information. The National Center for State Courts will provide support to the project and prepare a case study documenting lessons learned and make it available to other courts interested in Online Dispute Resolution in Landlord/Tenant cases.
Housing Help Center Community Partnership
The Harlem Community Justice Center (Justice Center), an operating program of the Center for Court Innovation (CCI), includes both a New York State Civil Court, with housing and civil court cases, and a community court that seeks to solve neighborhood problems using a problem-solving approach to address issues impacting the residents of East and Central Harlem. Residents are facing both internal and external issues related to their housing that continue to decrease housing stability. High rates of poverty and lack of affordable housing contribute to extraordinary housing issues. The Justice Center’s Housing Help Center seeks to increase housing stability and prevent evictions for individuals living in public and private housing. The Help Center provides individuals in housing court with information on navigating the housing court system, referrals to legal and financial assistance, and other needed social services. This includes assistance with repair issues and evictions prevention services, such as assisting tenants with applying for financial assistance from the City. The Help Center assists clients by connecting them to social services, preventing cases from being filed in court, and intervening in cases that have already been filed.
The Justice Center has hired a dedicated housing Social Worker and a Community Navigator who will enhance the Center’s ability to focus on the housing issues facing many clients, including vulnerable populations. The Social Worker will triage individual cases and identify the issues negatively impacting the client’s ability to remain in housing, and those who can benefit from services prior to a case being filed. The Social Worker conducts monthly assessments, advocate for clients, make referrals (on- and off-site), and provide regular reports to the Court regarding client progress.
The Community Navigator provides needed information about, and connect eligible clients to, legal services and resources for financial assistance and education. The Navigator will be a current or former resident in public housing in the Harlem community, and will receive specialized training in housing services, trauma-informed care, and motivational interviewing. The Navigator is the main contact to reach out to tenants who have been identified by the Housing Authority as being at risk for eviction. He/she works with the tenant and Housing Authority to develop a plan to become current and compliant with rent payments, and support clients throughout the course of their housing case. The Program helps to divert cases, thereby enabling the Court to focus on more complex matters.
Evaluating Estate Administration Innovations for Unrepresented Parties
The Council for Court Excellence (CCE), in partnership with the Washington, D.C. Access to Justice Commission (Commission) is conducting an evaluation to determine the barriers that pro se litigants face in probate in D.C., and offer a set of recommendations to improve probate for all parties. CCE and the Commission convened a Working Group that consists of judges, probate division staff, probate practitioners, people directly impacted, and other key subject matter experts. This group is reviewing the work of CCE, sharing experiences, and making recommendations for reform. CCE will interview various stakeholders; administer surveys; identify barriers for judges and litigants; identify and collect relevant case information; and gather information from model jurisdictions across the U.S. A final report will be presented to the Working Group for adoption, which will include recommendations for improving probate practices in D.C. After the report is released, there will be educational sessions on its content. This project will result in recommendations for realistic, impactful court and legislative reforms to probate in D.C. The project will also serve as a model for other jurisdictions seeking to improve their probate and estate administration processes to better serve self-represented litigants in these cases.
Access and Resource Center Planning Project
The Vermont Judiciary is partnering with the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) to plan a Judiciary Access and Resource Center in the Edward J. Costello Courthouse in Burlington (Chittenden County), Vermont. The Access and Resource Center will be used to: 1) improve the delivery of services to self-represented litigants, including those who are limited English proficient; 2) provide workshops and trainings for staff who assist individuals need information about court cases, processes, and services; 3) provide training to court interpreters and be a hub for key Judiciary Language Access Program activities; and 4) to address other access to justice-related priorities.
Self-Represented Litigants Assessment
The State of Nebraska Judicial Branch and the Fourth Judicial District of Nebraska partnered with the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) to assess the effectiveness of assistance provided to self-represented litigants (SRLs) in domestic relations cases. The final report details recommendations for improvements in service delivery to SRLs in Douglas County and statewide.
Plain Language and Simplified Court Procedures Project
The Massachusetts Administrative Office of the Trial Court is working with the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) to identify court processes in need of improvement, increase accessibility, and develop and implement multilingual tools in plain language that will help self-represented litigants understand and navigate the court. The number of self-represented litigants in court proceedings, including those with language needs, are increasing significantly. This is especially apparent in case types such as probate and family, housing, consumer debt, small claims, and tax liens. This project will enable the Court to expand on its foundational work in the areas of plain language and process simplification.
Improve and Expand Services for Self-Represented Litigants
The Kansas Judicial Branch partnered with the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) to assess services for self-represented litigants (SRLs) statewide and develop a plan to improve and expand services. NCSC worked with the Court’s Access to Justice Committee (A2J) to survey every county to determine current services; determine current methods and tools being used; and develop recommendations and strategies for improving services. The final report includes a determination of how existing centers are structured, how computers provide SRLs access, what resources are made available to SRLs beyond forms, and what training is provided to those who serve SRLs.
Legal Assistance for Self-Represented Litigants by Community Leaders
Several states have recognized the need to train community leaders on how to identify potential legal problems and make appropriate referrals for legal assistance. These trusted community leaders are often the first to hear about a potential legal problem, and if trained and aware of resources and referral prospects, these leaders could provide quick assistance to link citizens with the legal resources they may need.
The National Center of State Courts (NCSC) convened two community leader focus groups and shared the findings in the white paper, The Promise of Access to Justice Partnership: Legal Assistance for Self-Represented Litigants by Community Leaders. The project also included a memo drafted the Administrative Office of Illinois Courts about digital recording in courts; (2) a white paper, written by court management and architecture consultants, about ways to keep self-represented litigants and court staff safe in courts during the COVID-19 pandemic; and (3) a procedural fairness training and challenge with more than 400 participants nationwide. The NCSC engaged with LaGratta Consulting to advance procedural fairness through a Fairness Challenge as well as Teeny Courses.
Self-Help Strategic Planning Project
The State Court of Fulton County, Georgia, partnered with the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) to conduct a strategic planning process to expand and improve the existing Self-Help Center to meet the needs of an increasing number of self-represented litigants. Recommendations in the plan included: implement a patron tracking system; identify community partners and engage volunteers; develop website content in plain language that explains the different jurisdictions served by the three courts (magistrate, state and superior), a plain language glossary of legal terms, and plain language instructions for the state court e-filing system.