Tens of millions of Americans engage with our nation’s courts each year without the help of a lawyer. Many of these self-represented litigants (SRLs) are facing issues that put their basic human needs in jeopardy. Courthouses everywhere are full of members of the public seeking the courts’ help in redressing their problems - securing their homes, finances, family, and in some of the worst cases, their own personal safety. Furthermore, unable to afford legal counsel and unable to access legal aid, these SRLs are not only forced to navigate the law and its complexity on their own, but also an adversarial system designed to resolve conflict through legally trained advocates. Lawyer versus lawyer. And not lawyer versus busy and stressed single parent, who only has one day off work each month to handle such issues.
To make matters worse, our courts are under immense pressure to dispose of all claims, not just pro se claims, efficiently and effectively. This is creating tension between our judiciary and the public. But what does this look like day-to-day? How are courts responding? What solutions are working? And what can members of the legal profession learn from professionals from other industries that have tackled similar problems? Together, the American Bar Association Center for Innovation and The Pew Charitable Trusts intend to find out by gathering multidisciplinary teams together to observe our civil legal justice system in action and brainstorm what it needs to look like in the 21st century and beyond.
In late June, a team from the ABA and a team from Pew, hosted by the Los Angeles County Superior Court, conducted its first multidisciplinary convening at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse. The group, comprised of health services professionals, health and human services officials, criminal justice stakeholders, local government officials, voting rights advocates, lawyers, academics, judges, technologists, data scientists and designers listened to presentations from court administrators and observed four Los Angeles County Superior Court operations. The operations observed were:
(1) Unlawful Detainer Court (which handles eviction proceedings);
(2) The Court’s Self-Help Center;
(3) The Court’s Domestic Violence Center; and
(4) Los Angeles County’s Consumer and Business Affairs Online Dispute Resolution Center
After reflecting on the presentations given by court personnel and observing the operations discussed above, the group came together to hear from one another. To help guide the conversation the group focused on the following questions:
(1) What did you observe that is working well?
(2) What did you observe that is not working well?
(3) What surprised you about what you observed?
(4) What has not been discussed, that should?
Many were impressed by the courts ability to do more with less. The Los Angeles Superior Court is the largest trial court in the country, serving over 10 million people. Like much of the legal profession, the Los Angeles County Superior Court was strained a great deal during the last recession. Budget constraints cut court staff by a quarter, while new civil filings spiked. As the months turned to years, challenges continued to mount, particularly in case types with high volume and high percentages of SRLs such as debt collection, eviction and family law. Lines of people seeking help grew longer and default judgments continued to rise, but not anymore - thanks to some creative problem-solving. To help self-represented litigants, the Los Angeles County Superior Court has established a kind of “forms school” inside its self-help center where volunteers and members of the public work together to complete various court forms. Court process improvement initiatives have streamlined the workflows associated with filing and entering personal protective orders. And innovative dispute resolution methods have been implemented to help parties resolve their disputes, outside of traditional court proceedings.
Despite the improvements made, some participants in the convening, especially those who joined us from outside the justice system, were surprised by the importance placed on lawyers and judges by the court personnel. Additionally, healthcare professionals were particularly struck by how much administrative work judges conduct, while simultaneously hearing the cases before them, and expressed concern about how senior professionals (doctors, judges) cope with technology innovations. Many said it seemed that the judges were distracted and were trying to do too much at once. Others were confused by the legalese used in the court room. They couldn’t imagine how parties who appear without the assistance of a lawyer can understand what is going on. It was suggested that a reimagining of the courtroom experience is necessary to create a better “bench-side manner” for members of the public seeking the court’s assistance.
Other discussion topics included:
- How the courts are introducing electronic case management and long-term efforts to develop systems that allow the courts to control their own data management rather than to rely on monopoly vendors.
- The importance of looking critically at legal and court procedures to determine whether the procedures further or inhibit participation of SRLs in legal proceedings and whether the procedures enhance or deter the potential for low-cost legal representation.
- The potential for linkages to community services outside the courts to assist litigants with problems that cannot find a complete solution within the court system (e.g., housing assistance).
- When court innovations are working, what is the best way to disseminate those practices from one court to another in our federal system?
- The need to involve court users as stakeholder in the development and evaluation of technology innovations.
Representatives from Pew and the ABA Center for Innovation listened intently and recorded the suggestions for court improvement and candid observations from fresh perspectives that were offered by the group. The ABA Center for Innovation looks forward to working with Pew to chart a path toward a legal system that meets the needs of people who seek fair adjudications and just solutions that only a court can provide. One thing is certain, the experiences and observations made will be informative as future gatherings are planned – to reimagine the public’s experience with our nation’s civil legal justice system.