It’s official – Poster and FAQs online – en español

Good News!  ¡Buenas noticias!

The South Carolina Courts’ Self-Help Page now offers FAQs (General Questions, Circuit Court and Family Court) and an explanation about what court staff can and cannot in Spanish!

And many thanks to student volunteers with the USC School of Law’s Pro Bono Program and the kind folks at HABLA!

-RFW

Report of the Task Force on State Courts and the Elderly Released

Today the Supreme Court of South Carolina released the Report of the Task Force on State Courts and the Elderly.

It is well worth reading, if only to note how South Carolina demographics have changed over the years and to see predictions for our future.

Well done!

-RFW

More SRLs: Are Lawyers too Costly or Simply Sign of Hard Times?

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.

-RFW

Unbundled/Limited Scope Rep picking up Traction

Information out of Downey, CA:

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On Friday, March 6, 2009, The Downey Patriot posted an article by Steve Lopez, an attorney licensed in California. Excerpts from the article:

With legal fees this high and unaffordable for some people it is not surprising that about 80 percent of people in California represent themselves in civil family law cases — such as divorce, custody and domestic violence cases — according to the Self-Represented Litigation Network. In San Diego alone, the number of divorce filings involving at least one person not represented by a lawyer rose from 46 percent in 1992 to 77 percent in 2000.

The result also leaves the Courts absolutely inundated with people who do not understand the procedures.

In an effort to protect people’s rights while keeping costs reasonable, unbundled or limited scope representation may offer a solution for some. Lopez addresses the need for communication, clear and direct communication between the client and the attorney.

The article is well worth reading, especially for us South Carolinians.

-RFW

How do you feel about paperless courts?

Below is a poll where you can express how you feel about moving to paperless courts. This question arose when I was looking through news e-lerts from the week. I noticed one article out of Las Vegas, yep that Vegas, and the photo almost overwhelmed me.

So, please complete the poll and let me know how you feel.

-RFW

Self-Represented Litigants Hit the Mainstream Media

SRLs Hit MSNBC News

MSNBC Headline:

THE HOME YOU SAVE COULD BE YOUR OWN: In foreclosure crisis, more Americans representing themselves in court

For quite a while now, this blog has been addressing the ever-increasing numbers of Self-Represented Litigants aka SRLs in the courts, even BEFORE the current economic climate. Now with record numbers of people losing jobs and homes and unable to afford legal representation, the numbers of SRLs have increased to the point where mainstream media is reporting it.

The South Carolina Access to Justice Commission continues to work on this issue within South Carolina and encourages YOU to contact us if you have an area of law that needs specific attention including producing user-friendly forms or training opportunities.

If at all possible, find an attorney to represent you.

Do not represent yourself unless it’s absolutely necessary.

 This is not to say that the Commission encourages people to go into Court unattended. If, at all possible, you can find an attorney to represent you, by all means do so.

We will continue to keep you up-to-date with innovations for SRLs in South Carolina, as well as national trends and developments as we learn of them.

-RFW

PS – This just in: article on law books for self-represented litigants – http://www.hometownannapolis.com/cgi-bin/read/2009/02_01-19/BUS

In Other News

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Here are a few access to justice stories from around the nation today:

Out of Montana comes the question “What is the difference between simple access to the courts and access to justice?” It’s a good question and deserves discussion. To read more, click here.

Out of Texas comes news that the Texas Access to Justice Commission awarded the Texas Tech School of Law its first ever Law School Commitment to Service Award. Justice O’Neill specifically noted the School of Law’s clinical operations and pro bono work. To read more, click here.

Out of Ohio comes information that the Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation is going to track pro bono hours Ohio attorneys logged in 2008. The Supreme Court of Ohio announced last week a new program for attorneys to voluntarily report their pro bono activities. To read more, click here.

-RFW

In Maryland 75% of Family Law Disputes Involve Self-Represented Litigants

According to a recent article in The Daily Record, 3 out of 4 family law disputes involve at least one self-represented party. In South Carolina, we are continuing to gather statistics but it’s likely that our numbers are similar. And in the current economic climate, it’s likely that these numbers will continue to increase.

The South Carolina Access to Justice (SCATJ) Commission has been addressing this issue from the Court’s standpoint, by training judges and working with clerks of court. In addition, the SCATJ Commission has been working with Court Administration to develop forms and instructions for self-represented litigants (SRLs). We’ve sent delegations to two conferences and started work groups as a result.

SCATJ has spoken with recognized SRL experts such as Richard Zorza and John Greacen as well as others. Commissioners have been inspired by New Hampshire Chief Justice John T. Broderick.

SCATJ has been reviewing information from other states about ways that their public law libraries assist with SRLs. SCATJ has been working with legal partners including South Carolina Legal Services and the South Carolina Bar to develop videos and other instructional packets for SRLs as well as find ways to increase legal representation to South Carolinians who cannot afford it.

The primary goal is to provide attorney representation for all. Attorneys provide not only good legal advice, but sensible counsel as well. Attorneys are trained to review the issue from many angles and provide information that allows individuals to make well-reasoned decisions.

Until attorneys for all becomes a reality, the SCATJ Commission is resolved to decrease barriers for people to represent themselves. The SCATJ Commission has a dedicated SRL Committee whose sole purpose is to address this issue. We welcome your ideas. Please feel free to post.

- RFW

William H. Neukom’s interview in October 2008 Issue of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel Highlights Need for Community Collaboration for Access to Justice

Excerpts from The World Justice Project: A Sustained Commitment To The Rule Of Law, an article in The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel. The Editor interviews William H. Neukom:

 Every city in our country is disadvantaged by poverty. While everyone understands that there are root causes of poverty, no community is paying sufficient attention to the problem of poverty because other needs clamor for attention and too often prevent the poverty issue from being adequately aired. To the extent that the legal problems of poor people are heard in the courts, however, society as a whole has an opportunity to see this issue at first hand and, hopefully, consider ways in which it might be addressed. Access to justice for the poor, in criminal matters, to be sure, but also legal services in certain types of civil cases for those otherwise incapable of retaining a lawyer, are ways in which society can address poverty and, over time, reduce that poverty.

 When people say to me that legal services for the poor is a huge legal issue, I respond by saying it is a huge community issue. Our communities are suffering from poverty, and even if as an individual I am not, I am a member of the community. Access to education, access to heathcare, job opportunities – in addition to access to a fair and impartial system of justice – all of these things contribute to the elimination of poverty and the creation of a society in which we all wish to live.

 

-RFW