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Dickson: Trial courts face 'crisis' of unrepresented litigants

October 23, 2013

About three in five litigants appearing in Indiana’s civil trial courts are doing it themselves, according to data compiled from statewide case filings this summer.

“That was an alarming statistic to me,” Chief Justice Brent Dickson said of a “snapshot” of civil cases that found 62 percent of litigants were pro se, even when excluding small-claims actions and post-conviction relief petitions.

“We have a crisis in pro se litigation,” he said after relating the findings this month to a gathering of the Indianapolis Bar Association.

Dickson said the Supreme Court asked for an analysis of all civil filings in courts using the Odyssey case management system, which represents about 40 percent of cases statewide. For years, judges have worried about their observations of an increase in the number of pro se litigants, and Dickson said the court wanted baseline data that never had been compiled on such a scale.

pro-se-facts.jpg“If it’s good for 40 percent of the state, it’s probably good for 100 percent of the state,” he said. “We’ve got some reasonably reliable data. … Instead of gut feelings, we can say this is a real problem.”

Indiana Tax Court Judge Martha Blood Wentworth chairs the Indiana Pro Bono Commission and said judges for years have looked for ways to address what she called “an explosion of pro se litigation in our courtrooms all over the state.”

Judges, Wentworth said, “are trying to get attorneys to represent some of these pro se litigants, and how can judges make that process easier? Some of it is just (judges and lawyers) coming up with ideas.”

Marion Superior Civil Division 1 Judge David Shaheed chairs the Heartland Pro Bono Council that serves Indianapolis. Seeing a huge need for attorneys to represent people in domestic relation cases, he and plan administrator Dana Luetzelschwab are pushing an initiative that will begin in January.

Attorneys who agree to provide pro bono representation for people seeking counsel through Heartland’s website, heartlandprobono.org, will earn credit entitling them to three to six hours of free CLE.

“It’s primarily to attract new lawyers to take pro bono cases,” Shaheed said. The so-called “pro bono clerkship in family law” program will be available to attorneys in any Marion Superior court handling domestic relation cases. There’s a waiting list for legal help, Shaheed said, and “almost on a daily basis people are applying for legal assistance.”

Marion Superior courts also put on weekly workshops staffed by law students and supervised by a practicing family law attorney in which people who are representing themselves get help completing paperwork for divorce or modification cases, for instance.

Efforts like these help address some of the problems in administering cases involving unrepresented litigants. “The court has to do the judicial work but in the process make sure the unrepresented person has some idea what’s going on,” Shaheed said.

Dickson also shared the data at a recent Fort Wayne judicial conference, where Indiana Court of Appeals Judge John Baker said the findings came as little surprise.

While the numbers identify the prevalence of pro se cases, the challenges these cases present for judges and lawyers is more difficult to quantify.

It takes clerks, court staff and judges longer to manage cases where people are representing themselves because the litigants are unfamiliar with procedure, and judges also sometimes struggle to understand or frame litigants’ arguments, all of which slows the docket, Baker said.

“When you don’t have the aid of a professional to fetter out your relevant information, it takes our trial judges longer to resolve disputes that would otherwise probably be, in most cases, settled by the lawyers,” he said.

The appellate docket isn’t as flush with pro se appeals as trial courts, but Baker said it’s unmistakable that the number of pro se appeals is rising. Once a small-claims court judge, Baker said he knows the difficulty judges run into when litigants argue their own cases. There’s a difference in small claims, though, because that system anticipates pro se litigants.

In other civil trial courts, judges must be cognizant of accommodating pro se litigants but not crossing a line that could be viewed as advocacy, he said.

State courts have long recognized there always will be people who will represent themselves either by choice or because they lack the means to hire a lawyer. An online, self-service legal center – http://www.in.gov/judiciary/selfservice/ – provides do-it-yourself legal guidance while also warning it’s not advisable for someone to represent themselves in court.

Dickson observed, “Maybe we in the legal community ourselves have been enablers … in part by dignifying and encouraging this harmful trend. … ‘Self-represented’ is an oxymoron. They’re going it alone. They’re unrepresented.

“Maybe what we need to do is stop subtly encouraging people to go it alone,” he said.

Dickson and Wentworth said it will take efforts of state and local bar groups, judges and other advocates to ensure litigants who need representation get it. Wentworth said there’s no shortage of ideas, and judges want them from all quarters.

Baker likened possible changes in the legal landscape to those seen in medicine. For instance, drugstores now offer mini-clinics, and nurses in certain cases now are authorized to write prescriptions. So why shouldn’t paralegals or legal specialists who aren’t attorneys be allowed to handle some of the routine work?

“Everything doesn’t have to be treated as if it’s open-heart surgery. In some instances, we just need a medic,” he said. “I think our profession needs to think about being more adroit at changing the way we do business,” Baker said.•

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