Court Resources and the Large Numbers of Self-Represented Litigants
The access to the Court we seek to provide is made available through Court staff, and through the judges who process cases, answer questions and hear cases. How effectively we respond to self-represented parties affects not only the individual involved, but all users of the Court system. As most federal court funding and structures have been set up with the implied assumption that litigants will access Court services through attorneys, this Court must continually evaluate how we provide services, and to whom, in order to address all Court users effectively.
In the fall of 2011, the Clerk’s Office surveyed three areas of the Court about the impact of self-represented parties on our district: Chambers staff (law clerks and judicial assistants), Case Initiation (staff that process initial case documents and assist the public directly at the Clerk’s Office window), and Courtroom Services (staff that manage a judge’s calendar, courtroom, or process documents affecting a judge’s calendar). The results of the survey show the severity of need for legal services for self-represented parties in the Central District, and the impact of their number on our resources.
The majority of staff responding to the survey reported that they receive calls from self-represented parties at least a few times per week. Approximately one third of respondents reported that they receive daily or frequent calls from self-represented parties. Over a third of the respondents reported that they spend at least two or more hours each week responding to calls from self-represented parties, and a selection of these reported spending even more than three hours per week. The majority of respondents reported that they often receive requests for legal advice, which staff are unable to provide.
In addition to the time spent handling calls from self-represented parties, staff also face the time-consuming task of handling the often error-ridden filings submitted by this population. Respondents observed that self-represented parties have a wide range of difficulties, including filing illegible handwritten motions or weakly supported motions without evidence attached, failing to file mandatory forms or the necessary proof of service, failing to lodge an order, and misunderstanding the significance and results of each action in the case. These difficulties also can often be attributed to language barriers. Staff recommended translating court instructions into the multitude of primary languages they encounter when interacting with the public. Some commented that even basic literacy and computer skills are lacking. Despite repeated reminders from staff and Court notices, self-represented parties often confuse the meeting of creditors with a hearing. Also, at Court hearings, those without an attorney are unfamiliar with key aspects of the process, such as the use of tentative rulings. Many staff voiced discomfort with not being able to provide the quality of customer service they would like to offer, due to the restriction on providing legal advice to the public. Lacking familiarity with bankruptcy, staff mentioned, also leaves cases in limbo, because parties fail to file the appropriate paperwork to keep the case moving.
Procedural problems are also observed to cause substantial detriment to self-represented parties. Many intake staff noted that self-represented parties have difficulty distinguishing between credit counseling and financial management courses, despite numerous attempts to educate them about these two required courses. The Court even distributes a flyer specific to the two-course requirement. The result of missing the second course is closure of the case, which staff understand to be an additional hardship frequently faced by these parties, who then must pay the reopening fee to file their financial management course form.
The volume of calls and frequency of questions regarding legal advice is commensurate with the large self-represented population in the Central District and their need for legal assistance. As the Court is unable to provide answers to questions about legal advice, this time is often spent simply redirecting inquiries to legal aid organizations, rather than providing the specific answers callers need. The survey shows the importance of working to expand and streamline the resources that serve this population, which should improve the overall efficiency of the Court.
Table of Contents (Download Report)
- What Do We Know About Self-Represented Parties in our Court?
- How Many Self-Represented Parties Are There?
- Measuring Success
- Language Barriers
- Bankruptcy Petition Preparers
- Income Levels
- Literacy Issues
- Self-Represented Creditors
- Court Resources and the Impact of Large Numbers of Self-Represented Litigants
- Debtor ID Program
- Current Programs and Services for the Self-Represented
- The Court’s Website
- Personal Assistance from Court Staff
- Easy to Understand Forms and Instructions
- Assistance from Volunteers and Nonprofit Organizations
- Honor Roll
- Recruitment and Training of Volunteers
- Funding Sources for Non-Court Services
- Current Projects “Under Construction”
- Pathfinder Electronic Filing Project
- Proof of Service
- Video Instruction
- Future Surveys
- Call Center/Internet Live Chat