For the past 30 years, an increasing number of people come to court without a lawyer. As more people come to courts to access their legal rights, they are met with fewer free or low-cost legal services to help. Across the country, legal practitioners, scholars, and appellate courts have begun to question whether court procedure is effectively preventing access to justice.
Courts, legal services providers, and state and local Bars have responded to the flood of people without lawyers in numerous ways, including:
- amending ethical rules to legitimate already-existing forms of lawyer representation
- self-help centers
- uniform court forms
- self-help materials
- and non-lawyer representation.
In 2015, the Conferences of Chief Judges and State Court Administrators passed a joint resolution adopting “the aspirational goal of 100 percent access to effective assistance for essential civil legal needs.”
Some of the efforts to stem the tide of pro se, self-represented, or unrepresented litigants have focused on connecting people with lawyers: by increasing pro bono efforts and leveraging different technologies to connect people with free legal aid or low-cost representation. Recent efforts, however, primarily focus on alternatives to representation, and very few efforts address changes to court processes themselves.
During the study, potential clients seeking a divorce underwent a 45-60-minute interview to determine eligibility and learn more about the details of their case.
After the interview, consenting study-eligible individuals were randomized to one of two groups:
- Treated group: an effort by the service provider to find a pro bono attorney to represent her;
- Control group: a referral to existing self-help resources and an offer to answer questions by telephone.
We reviewed the court case files for all study participants, to review which cases successfully (a) filed for divorce in court, and (b) got divorced.
The Research Team
Jim Greiner, Faculty Director, The Access to Justice Lab; Professor of Law, Harvard Law School
Tom Ferriss, Quantitative Analyst, Google
Roseanna Sommers, JD/PhD candidate, Yale Law School and Yale University