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Cases Without Counsel: New Project to Explore Experiences of Self-Representation in U.S. Family Court

Robert ThompsonZachary Willis Posted in Featured, Honoring Families, Press Release

Denver, Colo. – IAALS, the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver, announces a first-of-its-kind national project to examine the growing trend of American families who represent themselves in family court.

These self-represented litigants (SRLs) navigate the process without legal counsel and make up a considerable portion of all those who use our nation’s family courts: two out of three family court filings in California are submitted by SRLs1, 70% of family cases in Maryland involve at least one SRL at some point in the case2, and the percentage of SRL divorce filings is believed to be near 40% in Texas.3

Individuals proceeding through divorce, separation, child support, or custody proceedings without representation may not always have the knowledge or resources to be as successful as those who have attorneys to help them. Sixty-two percent of judges surveyed by the American Bar Association said they are concerned about how well SRLs can represent themselves in their courtrooms and whether they can achieve outcomes on par with represented parties.4

The project will be conducted by IAALS’ Honoring Families Initiative (HFI) and led by HFI Director Natalie Anne Knowlton and Director of Research Corina D. Gerety. The study builds upon similar qualitative research undertaken in Canada by Dr. Julie Macfarlane’s National Self-Represented Litigants Project. Dr. Macfarlane will provide her expertise to the IAALS study, which focuses on SRLs’ experiences using family courts—a different perspective from those within the legal system, like judges and lawyers, who already have a strong voice in the conversation.

“No one in the U.S. has ever systematically and broadly asked self-represented litigants in the divorce system what the process was like for them and how the courts can help them navigate the justice system to achieve fair outcomes,” said IAALS Executive Director Rebecca Love Kourlis. “Thanks to the generosity of Bohemian Foundation, IAALS is initiating just such a study, with the ultimate objective of developing proposals for practical steps that the courts can take to become more accessible, understandable, and responsive to these pro se divorce litigants.”

In September 2014, HFI researchers will begin conducting in-person interviews with SRLs in the first two study states. Two to three additional study locations will be selected, with interviews in those states beginning in early 2015. Participating jurisdictions will benefit by obtaining first-hand information from a broad range of those in their state who have proceeded through family court without an attorney, providing valuable insight into this large group of people. Interested jurisdictions are encouraged to contact IAALS to discuss inclusion in the study.

Final study results will be published in the summer of 2015 and will be used to inform and develop recommendations for ways in which states can meet the needs of SRLs and improve the American legal system as a whole.

More details to follow.

2014 Fact Sheet: Self-Represented Litigants, Judicial Council of California.
Maryland Access to Justice Commission (2012).
Increasing Access to Justice in Texas, Texas Access to Justice Commission.
Report on the Survey of Judges on the Impact of the Economic Downturn on Representation in the Courts, American Bar Association Coalition for Justice (2010).

The Honoring Families Initiative serves to advance empirically informed models for dignified and fair processes for the resolution of divorce and separation, and parental responsibility cases in a manner that is more accessible and more responsive to children, parents, and families.

IAALS, the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver, is a national, independent research center dedicated to facilitating continuous improvement and advancing excellence in the American legal system.

Bohemian Foundation envisions a community that nurtures and inspires all of its members to continually improve their quality of life and pass this legacy on to the generations that follow. Through new and creative approaches, we seek to discover solutions to issues and concerns in our community.

The National Self-Represented Litigant Project is committed to collaboration to enhance the responsiveness of the Canadian justice system to SRLs, and to continuing dialogue among the stakeholders who include SRLs, lawyers, judges, and court services staff.