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,, 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 – – 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.•


  • 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. I have an open CHINS case I failed a urine screen I have since got clean completed IOP classes now in after care passed home inspection my x sister in law has my children I still don't even have unsupervised when I have been clean for over 4 months my x sister wants to keep the lids for good n has my case working with her I just discovered n have proof that at one of my hearing dcs case worker stated in court to the judge that a screen was dirty which caused me not to have unsupervised this was at the beginning two weeks after my initial screen I thought the weed could have still been in my system was upset because they were suppose to check levels n see if it was going down since this was only a few weeks after initial instead they said dirty I recently requested all of my screens from redwood because I take prescriptions that will show up n I was having my doctor look at levels to verify that matched what I was prescripted because dcs case worker accused me of abuseing when I got my screens I found out that screen I took that dcs case worker stated in court to judge that caused me to not get granted unsupervised was actually negative what can I do about this this is a serious issue saying a parent failed a screen in court to judge when they didn't please advise

  2. I have a degree at law, recent MS in regulatory studies. Licensed in KS, admitted b4 S& 7th circuit, but not to Indiana bar due to political correctness. Blacklisted, nearly unemployable due to hostile state action. Big Idea: Headwinds can overcome, esp for those not within the contours of the bell curve, the Lego Movie happiness set forth above. That said, even without the blacklisting for holding ideas unacceptable to the Glorious State, I think the idea presented above that a law degree open many vistas other than being a galley slave to elitist lawyers is pretty much laughable. (Did the law professors of Indiana pay for this to be published?)

  3. Paul Hartman of Burbank, Oh who is helping Sister Fuller with this Con Artist Kevin Bart McCarthy scares Sister Joseph Therese, Patricia Ann Fuller very much that McCarthy will try and hurt Patricia Ann Fuller and Paul Hartman of Burbank, Oh or any member of his family. Sister is very, very scared, (YES, I AM) This McCarthy guy is a real, real CON MAN and crook. I try to totall flatter Kevin Bart McCARTHY to keep him from hurting my best friends in this world which are Carolyn Rose and Paul Hartman. I Live in total fear of this man Kevin Bart McCarthy and try to praise him as a good man to keep us ALL from his bad deeds. This man could easy have some one cause us a very bad disability. You have to PRAISAE in order TO PROTECT yourself. He lies and makes up stories about people and then tries to steal if THEY OWN THRU THE COURTS A SPECIAL DEVOTION TO PROTECT, EX> Our Lady of America DEVOTION. EVERYONE who reads this, PLEASE BE CAREFUL of Kevin Bart McCarthy of Indianapolis, IN My Phone No. IS 419-435-3838.

  4. Joe, you might want to do some reading on the fate of Hoosier whistleblowers before you get your expectations raised up.

  5. I had a hospital and dcs caseworker falsify reports that my child was born with drugs in her system. I filed a complaint with the Indiana department of health....and they found that the hospital falsified drug screens in their investigation. Then I filed a complaint with human health services in Washington DC...dcs drug Testing is unregulated and is indicating false positives...they are currently being investigated by human health services. Then I located an attorney and signed contracts one month ago to sue dcs and Anderson community hospital. Once the suit is filed I am taking out a loan against the suit and paying a law firm to file a writ of mandamus challenging the courts jurisdiction to invoke chins case against me. I also forwarded evidence to a u.s. senator who contacted hhs to push an investigation faster. Once the lawsuit is filed local news stations will be running coverage on the situation. Easy day....people will be losing their jobs soon...and judge pancol...who has attempted to cover up what has happened will also be in trouble. The drug testing is a kids for cash and federal funding situation.