UPDATE | By Briana Stone, Civil Justice Attorney, Legal Access Division, SBOT
I recently had the opportunity to think a lot about self-represented litigants because I was one. In December, I went to court to correct an error on my son’s birth certificate. Nearly everyone in the courtroom was representing themselves. Unlike me, they did not have the benefit of actually being a lawyer. Yet many of them were there for more serious and complex issues than an uncontested name change for a child.
While I was waiting, I saw our court system with a new pair of eyes. Here are just a few things that made it easier for me to go to court that day than your average self-represented litigant:
• I have a basic understanding of the legal system that most people – aside from lawyers – do not have. I am able to easily comprehend complex text, whereas nearly half of all Americans have basic or below basic reading and comprehension skills.
• I have access to technology at home and work. I knew how to navigate the court’s website and find the information I needed despite all the legal jargon. Many low-income people only access the internet through their phones, if they are able to access it at all.
• It was easy for me to get to the courthouse that day because I have childcare and reliable transportation, and I am able to take time off during work hours without worrying that I may get fired. Many low-income people do not have any of these things, making it incredibly difficult to get to court.
• When I arrived at the courthouse, I knew where to go despite the lack of signage.
• I was able to read the instructions, communicate with staff, and understand the court proceedings because English is my native language. Interpreters are not always available for those who are not proficient in English and rarely is text translated into any other language, including Spanish.
• I was going to court for something simple: a name correction. I did not need to confront someone who had abused me, worry about losing my children, or talk about private matters in front of a bunch of strangers. I wasn’t defending myself against any type of accusation. In short, I didn’t have anything to lose.
Part of my job is trying to get more attorneys to do pro bono cases. Lawyers often tell me that they don’t take cases because they aren’t comfortable venturing outside their practice area or with the idea they might have to go to court.
Yet self-represented litigants go to court on their own every day. Most of them lack at least one of the advantages I have. Many of them face additional obstacles that I didn’t mention and likely can’t even fathom.
But they show up anyway and do their best. They feel the fear, the nerves, and the injustice of their predicament, and they push past all of that to do what they have to do. That day in court, I had a glimpse of what it might be like to be a self-represented litigant. I saw their strength and the courage they bring to the courthouse.
We welcome your suggestions for improving access to justice for self-represented litigants. Please email them to Trish McAllister, Executive Director, at firstname.lastname@example.org.