Sunday, May 12, 2013

An Important Report on the Needs of Self-Represented Litigants Released

A significant report has been created and shared by Dr. Julie Macfarlane at the University of Windsor, Canada with results that all courts should consider.  Her report is summarized by our good friend, Rob Richards of the Legal Informatics Blog.

By Rob Richards

Professor Dr. Julie Macfarlane of the University of Windsor has published The National Self-Represented Litigants Project: Identifying and Meeting the Needs of Self-Represented Litigants: Final Report (2013).

The report states the findings of an empirical study of the needs of pro se litigants in courts in Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario.  Her findings are based on one-on-one or focus-group interviews with “259 self-represented litigants” (SRLs) and 107 legal service providers.  And although the sample is not a probability sample, “the characteristics of the SRL sample are broadly representative of the general Canadian population.”

The principal findings regarding information are as follows (I’ve added bulleted lists for ease of reading):

Regarding court forms the most common complaints include:

  • difficulty knowing which form(s) to use;
  • apparently inconsistent information from court staff/judges;
  • difficulty with the language used on forms; and
  • the consequences of mistakes including adjournments and more wasted time and stress.

Regarding online legal resources SRLs identified the following weaknesses:

  • an emphasis on substantive legal information and an absence of information on practical tasks like:
    • filing or serving,
    • advice on negotiation or a strategy for talking to the other side,
    • presentation techniques, or [...]
    • legal procedure;
    • [online legal resources] often directed them to other sites (sometimes with broken links) with inconsistent information; and
    • multiplicity of sites with no means of differentiating which is the most “legitimate”.

Cynthia Eagan [a member of the research team] found many of the same problems when she audited a selection of on-line Court Guides [... as well as problems concerning:]

  • the reading levels of some of this material (as high as 13.5), and
  • the heavy use of jargon and unexplained legal terms.

Regarding legal information for SRLs:

  • SRL’s in the study frequently described themselves as seeking “guidance” rather than “direction”.
  • The most common source of legal information for SRL’s is court staff [...]
  • [SRLs] complained about the restrictions on the time and scope of information that these staff can offer, because of:
    • the limitation on their providing “legal advice”[...] or [...]
    • the sheer volume of people they are dealing with.
  • The distinction between legal information/legal advice which lies at the heart of the job descriptions of staff working on the court counters and in information services is consistently complained about by both SRL’s and staff, as at best unclear and at worst practically unworkable [...]

Regarding access to legal services:

[...] many SRL’s sought some type of “unbundled” legal services from legal counsel; for example:

  • assistance with document review,
  • writing a letter, or
  • appearing in court [...]

For the recommendations and additional information, please see the complete report and the project’s Website.

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