Self-Represented Litigants Deserve a Level Playing Field
Research consistently shows that the vast majority of people do not have access to affordable legal services. This lack of availability has profound consequences for people seeking justice through the court system. While in a criminal proceeding you have a constitutional right to a lawyer, in a civil proceeding you do not. You are on your own to figure it out.
The Way It Was
The quest for justice in America used to be relatively simple.
You knew if your rights had been violated.
You hired a lawyer.
Your lawyer presented the case in court.
The lawyer, who understood the process, would organize your case, collect all necessary evidence, and most importantly, prepared and presented your case to a judge. It’s no longer quite that simple.
The Way It Is
Over time, the justice system has become increasingly complicated. We now have more laws with more complexity than ever.
Also, our nation’s legal systems and services are growing more expensive and time-consuming, making them increasingly out of reach for many Americans. It’s no longer obvious for ordinary people to know when they have a legal issue let alone who is right and who is wrong in the eyes of the law. This lack of clarity is the number one reason people do not fight for their legal rights in court.
Expensive Lawyers or DIY
Those who do understand they have a legal issue feel like they need to hire a lawyer for court because the process is too overwhelming and procedurally complex to do it themselves. However, lawyers have become incredibly expensive costing many hundreds, or more often, thousands of dollars, to represent you for a single case. Now even most people in the American middle class are not able to afford an attorney for a court dispute. That’s why over 70% of people who do fight for their rights in civil courts now represent themselves.
The need for affordable civil litigation support services, to serve self-represented litigants, is critical.
As Jim Sandman, the President Emeritus of the Legal Services Corporation, the largest funder of legal aid entities in America, has stated, “Everything about the system, from the language of the law to the forms that are used, to the rules of evidence, all of it was created with lawyers in mind. It is a system that works pretty well if you have a lawyer, and horribly if you don’t.”
Every day across this country, court staff and judges see thousands of Americans struggling to get justice alone. As a self-represented litigant, you are left largely on your own to become your own lawyer; understand the process and procedures; organize your case; collect all necessary and relevant evidence; and most importantly prepare a winning presentation to a judge. In other words, you are expected to become your own hero, but with little understanding of the situation and with no superpowers. An impossible task.
Fragmented & Incomplete Support
While there are some existing self-represented litigant resources, these solutions are disjointed, fragmented and incomplete. In reality, the self-represented litigant needs to run all over the place, both physically and on the internet, looking for documents, forms, legal terms, procedures, and sample language to incorporate into the case. To make matters worse, these litigants rarely have easy access to third-party professional services like process-servers and mailing services, commonly used by lawyers to save them time and money.
Despite what many people see on TV, Small claims court is not a reality show, and if litigants do not treat this process with seriousness and preparation, they will fail, in many cases, even before their dispute reaches trial. However, the fact is that right now, self-represented litigants are on their own to put all the pieces together.
Support System for Self-Represented Litigants
This is why Quest for Justice believes that unleashing the power of technology to build a support system for self-represented litigants must be a top priority to close the access to justice gap.
Self-represented litigants need an all-in-one online system designed to help regular people file in civil court without having to hire an attorney. The program must guide litigants step-by-step to help them understand if they have a legitimate legal claim. If they do, it helps them build their most complete case possible and ensures they avoid common mistakes which often result in their case getting thrown out or delayed by the judge even before its fully heard.
This support system for self-represented litigants walks litigants through the case preparation process to help them keep track of what they need to do, from checking their facts and collecting evidence to understanding the process.
Finally, the system must help litigants organized their information into a professional and comprehensive trial presentation. While all lawyers are strongly advised to create trial presentations, nothing exists today to provide self-represented litigants with the tools to put together their own presentation for the court.
There is a Better Way
This access to justice gap in America is an unacceptable injustice that must be addressed. Self-represented litigants deserve a level playing field to prepare their case with confidence. And most importantly, get the justice they deserve. And the only way that we will be able to close this gap is to harness the power of technology to overcome the existing fragmented and incomplete resources and build a one stop, end-to-end support system solution for self-represented litigants.
- Patrick N. Forrest is Founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Quest for Justice.