Helping unrepresented litigants navigate the courts


There was a time when most people who went to court over landlord-tenant problems, consumer disputes, child custody, and other such matters were accompanied by lawyers.  But that time is long gone; now, because of the shortage of even moderately-priced legal services, most Americans must represent themselves in these “routine” — but vitally important — matters.

But representing oneself is no picnic for a layperson, given the almost impenetrable complexity of legal rules and procedures. Students from the Sheller Center’s Social Justice Lawyering Clinic waded into this problem this year, working with the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas to find ways of making justice more accessible to pro se litigants.

Law student Madeline Rathey was on the team, focusing on the area of appeals from eviction orders.  “It was eye-opening, and frustrating, to try to figure out how to navigate the system, and then to simplify it for pro se folks,” she says.

Despite the frustrations, Madeline feels positively about documents that she and her colleagues drafted – including a much simplified form for people seeking waivers of court fees, and clearer information on how to get an eviction stayed pending appeal.  The team also recommended some changes to court procedure, such as elimination of the requirement that litigants submit a formal memorandum with every motion (a near-impossibility for pro se folks).  And, Madeline notes, an even bigger step forward would be the creation of a Help Desk at the court’s filing office – since most people sooner or later need some hands-on help, not just forms and instructions.

Madeline’s work on these problems won’t end here.  She graduated this spring, and her next stop is a position with Mid-Penn Legal Services in Reading, representing low-income clients in landlord/tenant cases.