The Jailhouse Lawyer’s Handbook - How to Bring a Federal Lawsuit to Challenge Violations of Your Rights in Prison (5th Edition)
Resources to Assist Self-Represented Litigants - A Fifty-State Review of the “State of the Art” (National Edition), a document of the Michigan State Bar Foundation
Introduction – A Continuum of Services
The Michigan State Bar Foundation commissioned this study of current programs, policies and services provided by state courts to support persons representing themselves in pursuing legal remedies in court. This research and analysis will be used by Michigan’s Solutions on Self-Help (SOS) Task Force to develop programs to help the self-represented. The report is structured in two parts to reflect areas being examined by two of the Task Force’s work groups: 1) how forms and information are provided for the self-represented and 2) how justice system rules and policies affect the ability of persons to represent themselves effectively. In addition, the report explores how judicial and extra-judicial partners collaborate on these issues.
There are many good non-court-based resources to assist the self-represented developed by legal services programs and state bar associations. While those programs are sometimes mentioned in this report, it is primarily focused on resources through or connected with courts. The methodology for this study has involved review of all state judicial branch websites to identify forms and information provided, followed by a survey sent to each state court administrator to verify the information obtained from the websites and to learn of additional policies and services in the state.1
The review has confirmed Justice Kelly’s observation in her “Charge to the Solutions on Self-Help (SOS)] Task Force” that “self-help is not a substitute for counsel. Rather, it is part of a continuum in which some matters can be resolved effectively by self-help, some need ADR or other forms of limited representation and some need full representation by a lawyer.” The bench and bar need to help assure the availability of that full range of services to ensure that persons representing themselves obtain the results that the facts and law applicable to their cases warrant. The body of this report contains the detailed information concerning forms, information, policies, rules and other activities currently provided to assist the self-represented. This introduction provides a conceptual context for the information in this report – a context that may prove useful to the Task Force as it crafts a proposal for a comprehensive program of self-help services for the people of the state of Michigan and a policy framework within which they will be provided.
Self-represented litigants and their cases present an endless variety of situations, ranging from highly educated and capable persons seeking to obtain the simplest forms of court relief (such as a change of name) to persons with limited education, limited English capability, and other handicaps (ranging from hearing and sight impairment to mental illness) seeking to obtain relief in the most complex sorts of legal proceedings (such as dissolution of long term marriages with minor children, a dependent spouse, and large amounts of marital assets in a variety of personally owned or controlled businesses or civil litigation arising from negligence, product liability or professional malpractice requiring expert testimony). Some litigants can obtain all the assistance they need to vindicate their legal rights from court-provided forms and information. Others need limited legal advice to enable them to represent themselves. Others need full legal representation because of the complexity of the factual or legal issues involved in their cases or because of their lack of the basic skills needed to present them to a court.
Despite the concerted efforts of courts and bar leaders over many decades, it is clear that the public is unable or unwilling to underwrite the costs of providing lawyers in all cases in which they are needed (even for indigent persons except for criminal, delinquency and dependency and neglect matters where they are a matter of constitutional right), the bar is unable or unwilling to provide sufficient free services to meet the need, and litigants themselves are often unable or unwilling to pay for the services of a lawyer.
Throughout society, there is a trend toward “do-it-yourself” behavior which has become so familiar that we had a new acronym for it – “DIY.” The elimination of professional “middleman” services in a variety of fields has been labeled “disintermediation” by sociologists. All of us are familiar with real estate signs “For Sale by Owner.” Chain hardware stores provide advice and classes for people to make repairs or improvements to their homes without hiring carpenters, electricians, and plumbers. Stock brokerages now offer online stock transaction assistance that does not entail interaction with, or advice from, a stock broker. Many medical websites allow persons to diagnose their own ailments and purchase non-prescription medications to treat them. Hundreds of thousands of Americans now “home school” their children – bypassing professional educators. We should not be surprised to see the same pattern emerge in law – with large numbers of persons choosing to handle their own court cases – bypassing the legal profession.
While there was some doubt several decades ago about how the courts would respond when self-represented litigants began appearing in large numbers in general jurisdiction courts where they “did not belong,” it is clear that there is current consensus within the judicial branch and the legal community that the courts have an obligation to ensure that self-represented persons have the best possible opportunity to obtain a court decision reflecting the facts and law of their situations.
The graphic below shows – in the left column – the continuum of information needed by the self-represented person to ensure this outcome. The right column shows the continuum of sources from which the information or assistance can be obtained.
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For now, have a great day and a better tomorrow.
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