March 3, 2021
In 2015, the National Center released The Landscape of Civil Litigation in State Courts which found in 76% of cases at least one party was a self-represented litigant (SRL), usually the defendant. The question for many courts is how to provide services to these parties. To that end, the state of Nebraska and the Fourth Judicial District (Douglas County District Court) asked NCSC to assess the effectiveness of assistance provided to self-represented litigants (SRLs) in their domestic relations cases. The resulting Nebraska Self Represented Litigants Report focused on several key points
- Identification of the strengths and challenges of the current self-help services as well as opportunities.
- Evaluation of the services, forms, and technologies in use and the potential self-help center services.
- Prioritization self-represented litigant/customer needs in navigating the court system
- Provide a plan to include cost-effective, impartial, and practical strategies.
The report reiterated points common to both the Nebraska courts system as well as others throughout the U.S. SRLs have difficulties understanding the legal system, the court process, and what they need to do next. SRLs have differing backgrounds and needs which will affect what kind of self-help services they require. Finally, the experience of a court self-help user is based on many factors such as their interaction with court officers and the emotional stress they may have is not always addressed.
In answer to the question of how to address these issues, NCSC recommended several items. Among them was the use of a "prescription pad" or information packet for SRLs. Appendix 9 of the report gives several examples from a variety of states and courts such as the one shown below from Illinois.
Additionally, courts can better utilize technology such as collecting email addresses, cell phone numbers and wireless service providers from SRLs. This allows for better or greater contact opportunities such as email and text reminders. Additionally, the report recommends more training on SRLs to judges, bailiffs, and clerks. This includes, but is not limited to, the difference between legal information and advice, a point of confusion the report found in several contexts. Finally, the report recommends more comprehensive data collection on SRLs to help understand and improve the SRL court experience.