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Dickson: Trial courts face 'crisis' of unrepresented litigants

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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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  • A theme has emerged
    Money drives the profession. It did not drive me, so I was too odd to license. And those who do not want to have their money unjustly taken by the greedy toll guards on the highway to court, well they are choking up the docket. I guess all that glitters might be gold, but when gold and not God leads the search for justice well then the middle just does not hold.
  • reality
    Whoever thought of posting the expungement and domestic relations forms online, didn't do trial court judges any favors. Next, will it be estate administration and products liability fill-in the blank forms online for pro se litigants? How about "Partial" Pro Bono cases at say $25 to $35 per hour to the client, instead of nothing? No, that would be way too much common sense.
  • Money
    Baker is right. He hit the NAIL on the head when he "Glossed" over the real reason myself and others decide to go Pro-Se. Money. All the Lawyers in Indianapolis want an exuberant amount as retainer fee.The case can be completely Linear and they will make a Mountain out of Mole Hill to justify there fee's. I applaud the Conversation being directed by Judge Baker, to wit PARA LEGALS should be allowed to prepare and give guidance to where and how to file matters.Understanding where to put the key in the ignition is the first step in getting the Car Moving.
  • Idea
    I had an idea. I founded a Christian ministry in Fort Wayne that had announced plans to represent litigatant pro bonon in justice issues. I had a deep background in consumer law, licened in KS since 1996, had just been cleared character and fitness by the National Board of Law Examiners. But political correctness in Indy led them to reject me, after asking me, on the record, if I would put God's law above man's law. Perhpas Indy should back away from p.c. and misuse of the D.C. and this problem might lessen? Details 3w @ archangelinstitute @ Michael tab.

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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