In an effort to help unrepresented people navigate complex procedures, six PA judicial systems — like many others around the country — have introduced court-based “self-help centers.” In “Justice for All: The Current Success of Self-Help Centers in Pennsylvania Courts and Recommendations for Growth,” a Sheller Center team offers their findings from a semester-long study of how these centers work and the results they’ve achieved.
The report discusses the design and funding of self-help centers; provides reactions to the centers from judges, court staff and litigants; and offers contacts and suggestions for courts and advocates interested in creating or expanding help centers in their locations. The report was authored by Catherine Baldwin, Tess Frydman, and Cathy Ginder, 2L students in the Sheller Center’s Access to Justice Clinic.
Some thoughts from Catherine Baldwin:
Court self-help centers, on their face, seem like an easy win. We allow individuals to represent themselves pro se and those self-represented litigants make up a huge portion of the parties in civil cases. The legal process can be complex and confusing. Litigants often struggle with the procedural aspects of their cases: what it means to serve their opponent, which forms to use, and what to expect in the courtroom. A court self-help center can provide these resources and set self-represented litigants on the track to fully participate in their case. A prepared litigant improves judicial efficiency because cases are not gummed up by procedural problems.
Why then are there so few court self-help centers in Pennsylvania? One of the major obstacles is a concern about courts providing legal advice to litigants. Personnel who are not attorneys may not offer legal advice, because that would be the unauthorized practice of law. And personnel who are attorneys may not offer legal advice because doing so would make the court seem partial to the one receiving the advice. Courts are concerned that help centers might not be able to offer neutral legal information without crossing the line into legal advice.
However daunting this obstacle may seem to courts, it is surmountable. There can be a clear distinction between legal information and legal advice. Take Colorado as an example: it has a self-help center system that spans the entire state. At its inception, the Supreme Court met the concern about legal advice head on. In a directive released in 2013, the Chief Justice set forth a standard. Colorado self-help personnel may provide information about court procedures, offer educational materials, assist in the selection of forms, answer general questions about the court process, as well as many other services. Among other things, personnel may not represent litigants, give an opinion on the outcome of a case, provide legal analysis, or make a recommendation whether the case should be brought to court. Self-help personnel may not say anything they would not repeat in the presence of the opposing party in the case.
Our report on court help centers in Pennsylvania and other states outlines various structures for court help centers, addresses common issues, and provides contact information for a network of professionals who are willing to lend their expertise to courts interested in creating help centers.
For most litigants, courthouses are at best, overwhelming and intimidating. Self-represented litigants are so often left to fend for themselves, adrift in the legalese and formality that comes with every civil case. Court help centers, whatever their structure, prepare litigants to participate fully in their case and make the court less frightening.