The Need for a Pro Se Support System
The pro se litigant is someone who represents himself in court. While some pro se litigants may be getting legal advice from an attorney, most civil litigants are getting disjointed legal information piecemeal from non-attorney sources such as books, friends or family, court’s self-help centers, and online. Legal aid organizations and pro bono attorneys do provide legal advice, but their services are only available to a small percentage of consumers and most often are very limited in scope. No system or organization exists today to provide comprehensive support to pro se litigants.
A Pro Se Support System is intended as a tool for litigants to use from the moment they suspect they have a legal matter, throughout the resolution of a dispute that may result in one or more lawsuits, and to post-settlement/post-judgment.
The four components of a Pro Se Support System would provide pro se litigants with the following:
Access to outsourced legal services
Case presentation tools
1) Providing Crucial Legal Information to Pro Se Litigants
The most important assistance pro se litigants need is legal information. To be successful at protecting their legal rights, both plaintiff and defendant litigants need to understand:
the processes by which to protect those rights and
the legal terms used in court.
Automated systems do exist to collect information to fill out court forms using non-legal terms. However, a Pro Se Support System goes the extra mile by providing litigants with the tools to help them: identify if they have a legal claim; ascertain if they have the necessary proof for each legal element; understand the procedures to follow at each step of the way; and learn the legal terms they are likely to encounter in court.
A Pro Se Support System must provide the litigant with comprehensive legal information as part of its functionality to truly be helpful. For example, one of the most important legal concepts for litigants to learn is cause of action. The plaintiffs’ successes depend on them being able to prove that the cause of action exists, and the defendants’ successes depend on them proving that the plaintiffs’ have failed to satisfy their burden. However, since there are many causes of action that could be pursued in court but only one, or a few, would apply to the plaintiffs, the Pro Se Support System must also not waste the users’ time with irrelevant information. The system’s function is to provide litigants with the legal information needed to get justice in court, not to obtain a law degree.
Pro se litigants will also be interfacing with court employees accustomed to dealing with legal professionals such as lawyers and process servers. These employees routinely assume that the litigants understand the law, procedures and terminology when providing information and answering questions and do not have the time to offer detailed guidance. Uneducated litigants often make basic mistakes and fail to protect their legal rights. At the very least, these mistakes will not only waste their time but also the Court’s time.
2) Thinking Tools
After litigants learn whether they have a case and the necessary evidence to proceed, they must decide the following:
Should I just let this go, fight in court, or settle with the other side?
Can I win?
Can I collect if I win?
What impact will the litigation process have on me emotionally and financially?
For many pro se litigants, this will be their first and possibly only legal case. Without a Pro Se Support System, they will not have a systematic method to help them answer these questions.
For example, the question of “Can I win?” requires the litigant to evaluate the timeline and supporting evidence to determine if these satisfy the elements of the cause of action to be pursued in court. Many litigants won’t even know what causes of action or elements are. This is where it becomes critical to understand legal information. For instance, plaintiff litigants won’t know that to win, they will need to prove that all elements exist. Defendant litigants won’t know that they will need to disprove the existence of just one of the elements to win.
A Pro Se Support System would provide litigants with legal information and a framework to help them organize their thoughts about a particular question to arrive at an answer. On the question of “Can I win?” the system would ask users to analyze their timeline to determine if it’s comprehensive enough to prove the existence of each legal element. The system would then synthesize their answers into a single report to show them an objective assessment of their case.
Just like jury instructions are a type of thinking tool designed to help layman jury members draw legal conclusions, a Pro Se Support System would also provide the layman litigants with thinking tools to help them draw conclusions about their own case.
3) Help Pro Se Litigants Access Outsourced Legal Services
Most lawyers use third-party service providers for many pre-trial steps to efficiently satisfy court procedural requirements. Many pro se litigants are unfamiliar with the existence of these providers and therefore unable to take advantage of their services. This means these litigants run the risk of making preventable mistakes (e.g., failing to serve correctly), as well as wasting time and effort by not utilizing these services (e.g., such as translation, certification, document tracking, etc.).
A Pro Se Support System would not only educate the pro se litigants on the existence of these third-party resources but also make it easier to order services from providers who have been vetted for quality and price. A Pro Se Support System would provide ordinary people with the same third-party service tools that are available to lawyers.
4) Building a Proper Trial Presentation
The trial is the climax in the litigation process. It’s the event where the litigants present their case. Victory requires that their story be comprehensive, legally sufficient, and credible. While all lawyers are strongly advised to create trial presentations, nothing exists today to provide pro se litigants with the tools to put together their own presentation.
Important elements of the trial presentation include:
The story’s timeline of events.
Evidence to support the story.
Evidence to enhance the credibility of the story.
For plaintiff litigants, an explanation of how the damages are calculated.
For defendant litigants who wish to request that they be allowed to pay monetary damages over time, an explanation and justification for what such amount could be and over what timeframe.
5) Equal Access to Justice Requires a Pro Se Support System
Currently, there is no centralized all-in-one Pro Se Support System to help guide litigants through the entire process. Well guided pro se litigants would make fewer errors, thereby avoiding hearing delays, thereby feeling less frustrated with the court experience.
- Binh Dang is the President and founder of Quest for Justice.