Last week while the entire nation was focused on the highest court in our land, I had the opportunity to see how our court system handles the most vulnerable people in the court system: the poor, self-represented litigant. I accompanied the fall session of Suffolk Law School’s 21stcentury lawyering class on a tour of the Court Services Center at the Brook Courthouse in Boston, MA.
During my time in practice, I didn’t spend a lot of time in court. On those rare occasions when I found myself before a federal judge, I was always accompanied by an experienced patent litigator who did most of the heavy-lifting. I worked for a large company who could afford good counsel.
I was a world away from that courthouse experience standing in the Court Services Center. This is a world few people get to see. Two full-time attorneys and a small contingent of volunteer lawyers and law students help ~1,000 pro selitigants every month fill out the forms they need in family law and housing cases.
From their website: “The Edward W. Brook Courthouse Court Service Center has computers with access to online resources that are available on a first-come first-served basis. Other services include:
- one-on-one help filling out court forms;
- information about court rules, procedures and practices;
- court documents and written instructions;
- access to interpreter services;
- assistance with legal research; and
- contact information for community resources, legal assistance programs, and social service agencies.”
Reading this, you would assume that they have the tools they need to do their job. The reality was sobering.
The Center has four computers. Only two are connected to printers. If they use all four at once, the operation grinds to a slow slog because they have a terrible Internet connection. There is no Wi-Fi in the building. You can’t use your cell phones.
The volunteers help their “clients” fill out paperwork by hand. I say “clients” because the lawyers and students do not represent the litigants. They do not act as their attorneys. Their job is to help them navigate the alien world of the court.
I can’t imagine how these litigants must feel stepping into the courthouse. Intimidated? Scared? Desperate? Pro selitigants are on their own to navigate a complex system that is not designed for them. Our court system is designed to be user-friendly with the assumption that the user is always a highly-trained attorney.
In certain areas of the law, it is far more common for one or both of the parties to be unrepresented. I’ve seen statistics that say, depending on the jurisdiction, up to 90% of the parties in family law cases represent themselves. I’ve also seen statistics that say the vast majority of those being evicted represent themselves and only 4% of those parties prevail in eviction cases.
Self-represented parties put a heavy strain on the court system. The gears of justice grind to a halt when the parties don’t know the proper procedures or don’t have the right forms. In these cases, the judge can send them to the Court Services Center for help. This allows judges to get through their dockets faster. Unfortunately, not all courthouses have such a center. There are 6 Court Services Centers spread throughout Massachusetts. They are located in Boston, Brockton, Greenfield, Worcester, Springfield and Lawrence. Any one with a case in Massachusetts court can avail themselves of their services.
Many of the litigants don’t speak English. The Center has access to interpreters when needed. They often show up with their children. In addition to their legal matter, they are face homelessness, hunger, domestic abuse, and any variety of medical conditions. Because so many need housing and food assistance, local service organizations like Rosie’s Place and Casa Myrna help where they can.
Some of them have been at the courthouse all day. All too often the litigant starts out in the courtroom only to be sent to Court Services Center because they don’t have the proper forms. When they leave the Court Services Center they will go back to court and wait some more.
The Court Services Centers are always looking for volunteers. They offer training for lawyers and law students so don’t feel you can’t help because you don’t know what you’re doing. This is an excellent opportunity for any law student who is thinking of practicing in family or housing law to get hands on training and experience.
This field trip was quite eye-opening. The lawyers and volunteers at the Court Services Center work hard providing whatever assistance they can to those who really need it. These are the people on the frontlines of the access to justice crisis in America.