Grounds for Objection: Causes and Consequences of America’s Pro Se Crisis and How to Solve the Problem of Unrepresented Litigants

By: Joy Moses. Published by: Center for American Progress (CAP). Published in June 2011.

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The number of low and moderate-income litigants representing themselves in civil matters has increased in recent decades. These pro se litigants have been the subject of much discussion, but have not been sufficiently researched.

There’s no nationwide snapshot of the problem. We don’t know precisely how many people represent themselves in civil legal matters in the United States, and we can’t make year-over-year comparisons. Still, 60 percent of judges in a 2009 study reported increases in self-represented litigants as a result of the economic crisis. Some reported seeing many more middle class litigants coming to court without lawyers.

Types of cases Pro se representation is particularly prevalent in family law cases such as divorce, custody, child support, and paternity. The trend is likely tied to increased divorce, out-of-wedlock births, and increased investments in federal child support enforcement. Other types of cases also associated with self-representation include protection orders, landlord-tenant disputes, and probate matters.

This phenomenon gets exacerbated during times of national and personal economic stress, like the recent financial crisis; debt and bankruptcy go hand in hand with not being able to afford an attorney.

In the following pages, I explore why this phenomenon is a serious problem for both litigants and courts, and then close with a discussion of potential solutions. The solutions mentioned here are explored in greater detail in three papers published contemporaneously with this one:

“When Second Best Is the Best We Can Do: Improving the Odds for Pro Se Civil Litigants,” by Peter Edelman; “Access to Evidence: How an Evidence-Based Delivery System Can Improve Legal Aid for Low and Moderate-Income Americans,” by Jeffrey Selbin, Jeanne Charn, and Josh Rosenthal; and “The Justice Gap: Civil Legal Assistance Today and Tomorrow,” by Alan Houseman.

Categories: Policymakers and Funders, National, Self-Represented Litigants

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