Access to Courts & Judges

Others Working on This

Sonja Ebron and Debra Slone


While civil justice issues may rarely involve the courts, the courts are still essential to all kinds of legal issues. Criminal defendants, as the obvious example, don’t get to decide for themselves whether they want to be involved with the court system. Neither do tenants when their landlord wants to evict them, or consumers who are sued by a debt collector. Serious injuries often require a lawsuit to resolve. So do divorces and child custody disputes.

The legal system is, however, fairly Byzantine and difficult to navigate without professional help. I used to explain to my clients that getting involved in a lawsuit was like visiting a foreign country where you don’t speak the language. You can probably get by with a phrasebook, but you might end up getting directions to the red light district instead of the restaurant where you have reservations. A lawyer is like a tour guide who can make sure your trip goes smoothly.

(More on access to lawyers.)

But just like travel, many people in the court system choose to or are forced to represent themselves. And that’s a big challenge when the legal system is designed to be used by trained professionals, not occasional DIYers.

Some courts report their data on self-represented/pro se parties and it can vary widely depending on the court and the type of case.

In urban family courts, for example, the number of cases with a self-represented litigant can be over 75%. However, in auto accident and probate cases the number is often much lower. (I’ll try to gather better data to back this up, but in reading and learning a lot about this over the last decade or so, from various sources, I’m confident these are safe statements, if not precisely accurate.)

In other words, people need to be able to use the courts without hiring a lawyer.

Many courts now acknowledge this and looking for ways to guide people through court system. But there are serious obstacles, including funding, the complexity of the law and procedural requirements, technology competence, and more. Also, when I talk to judges I often hear complaints that it’s so hard to deal with pro se parties, and it’s clear to me that, to many judges, the real problem is still access to lawyers.

But some courts are making real progress. Online dispute resolution is one approach to solving this problem, and there are some other promising programs and projects, including the British Columbia Civil Resolution Tribunal and the MN Guide & File document assembly tool.

Published on January 17th, 2021. Last updated on April 26th, 2021, by Sam Glover.