That’s the question coming out of Connecticut this week, see Connecticut Law Tribune article here. Whatever the answer, the numbers of Self-Represented Litigants or SRLs is on the rise. The trend isn’t limited to Connecticut either. Recent conversations with family court judges, clerks of court and masters-in-equity have indicated that South Carolina is also part of the trend.
The challenges faced by other court systems also mirror what is happening in South Carolina. SRLs are not familiar with procedures to meet minimal requirements such as notifying the other party or service of process. Even if they meet procedural requirements they may not understand some of the documents themselves. They may not even complete all the necessary forms.
Additionally, attorneys have a reputation for using their own language, also known as legalese. The phrases in legal documents often are in Latin, not English. The South Carolina Access to Justice Commission is working with the courts to ensure that court documents are written in Plain English whenever possible.
Clerks of Court in South Carolina have also noted the rise in SRLs. Members of the public often ask for forms, then ask for help completing them. Or they may ask for advice from the clerk of whether to bring the action. Clerks are wary of responding – not because they don’t want to help, but because they don’t want to overstep into the practice of law – the unauthorized practice of law. In South Carolina, there are established laws indicating that only attorneys licensed in South Carolina may practice law in South Carolina. Legal advice is considered the practice of law. The South Carolina Access to Justice Commission is also working to address this question by developing signage clearly indicating what clerks can and cannot do. And the Commission is working with a clerk of court work group to educate clerks and the general public about the fine line between advice and information.
Judges note that they too have ethical dilemmas. When SRLs appear in their courtrooms and miss relevant pieces of their cases, the judges want to help but they too have boundaries. They may not help one side to the detriment of another.
SRLs have arrived and South Carolina is working to address the issue of increased numbers of SRLs in the courts.
But it may take a little while.
Thanks for your patience.