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Pro bono: Responses to self-represented litigants

Every Issue

Cite as: (2009) 83(02) LIJ, p.79

The legal family’s black sheep moved from the fringes of the legal system to being the focus of the pre-conference session of the National Access to Justice and Pro Bono Conference.

The session discussed “managing and meeting the needs of self-represented litigants”, an issue which continues to excite debate among members of the legal fraternity, nationally and internationally.

Participants in the session, held in Sydney on 13 November last year, included representatives from 15 different courts and tribunals.

Minneapolis, Minnesota 4th Judicial District Court Pro Se (self-represented) Services manager Susan Ledray spoke of initiatives for managing self-represented litigants in the US generally and, in particular, the court-annexed program for which she is responsible.

The “Self-help” program is designed to improve access to justice for court participants through self-empowerment. It is predicated on the theory (albeit, one borne out by research) that the majority of self-represented litigants are more concerned about the fairness of the court process than the ultimate outcome.

The program delivers a range of services, including the provision of self-help computers and one-way phones in the courts of each of the 87 Minnesota counties, as well as a range of walk-in services for self-represented parties. In Hennepin County, for example, self-represented litigants can access free legal advice from volunteer lawyers and a court-form screening service. A recent initiative is the establishment of a virtual self-help centre which provides fact sheets and other procedural information for self-represented litigants as well as links to a variety of online resources.

In the UK, the self-represented litigant receives assistance through the Royal Courts of Justice Citizens Advice Bureau.

Robin Knowles QC spoke to the pre-conference session about the bureau’s work and explained that the litigant in person may access free legal and procedural advice through a drop-in or appointment-based service delivered by a team of employed and volunteer solicitors.

The bureau also provides a specialist debt advice service and a bankruptcy service.

The UK response to dealing with self-represented litigants has to a large extent informed initiatives underway in Australia.

To date, the most comprehensive response has been the establishment by Queensland PILCH of a self-representation civil law service (SRCLS) which began full operation in January 2008.

SRCLS receives referrals from court staff, the judiciary and tribunals and, through a network of volunteers (comprising solicitors, barristers and retired practitioners), provides free legal assistance to self-represented litigants or people contemplating proceedings.

Interestingly, the initial evaluation of SRCLS suggests that once armed with legal advice (both substantive and procedural), a majority of potential self-represented litigants will ultimately decide not to commence proceedings.1

In Victoria, Supreme Court self-represented litigant coordinator Shane Draper provides procedural advice to court participants from within the Court’s registry.

Mr Draper, also a speaker at the pre-conference session, has dealt with more than 1200 inquiries since he took on the role and has, during this time, developed a consistent approach to dealing with self-represented litigants that is directed at providing practical advice about the litigious process.

He does not provide legal advice but, where appropriate, will make referrals to pro bono legal service providers.

Despite the different responses employed, all speakers at the session identified a need to challenge the traditional paradigm where the self-represented litigant is perceived as little more than a nuisance, requiring control and management by the system.

Instead, they said, there was a need to look for opportunities to provide access to justice by recognising that the self-represented litigant is, for whatever reason, merely choosing to assert a legitimate right to represent oneself.


CATHERINE SYMONS is co-manager of the Public Interest Law Scheme at PILCH, which coordinates the Pro Bono column. Further information is available from http://www.pilch.org.au.

1. In 81 per cent of cases where the client applied to SRCLS for assistance before proceedings were on foot, the client did not go on to commence proceedings in either the District or Supreme Court – see QPILCH Self-Representation Civil Law Service, Evaluation 2007-2008.

Looking to help?

To facilitate lawyers and firms becoming involved in pro bono work other than legal services, the LIJ will profile a community group and its needs each month.

Name of group Brain Injury Australia

Contact person Nick Rushworth, CEO

Email nick.rushworth@bia.net.au

Address The Social Enterprise Centre,
1-7 Gelibolu Parade, Auburn, NSW 2144

Brief description of work of group

Brain Injury Australia (BIA) is the national organisation representing people with acquired brain injury, their families and carers. Lobbying for better treatment and raising awareness can significantly improve the health outcomes for injury sufferers.

Current needs of group

BIA is seeking volunteers to assist with national awareness raising, accounting and bookkeeping and graphic design. Apply at http://www.goodcompany.com.au.

goodcompany

See http://www.goodcompany.com.au for more information on this and other skilled volunteering opportunities. For more information about volunteering in general see:

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