Tennessee Hosts National Self-Represented Litigants Conference

April 28, 2020

The Self-Represented Litigation Network (SRLN) recently partnered with the Tennessee Access to Justice Commission (ATJ) to bring its annual conference to Nashville.  The national conference brought together lawyers, judges, clerks of court and court administrators, self-help services professionals, librarians, technologists, funders and other allied professionals from around the country to explore and discuss strategies to provide 100 percent access to justice and meet the legal needs of the nation’s many self-represented litigants. The Tennessee judiciary was represented at the conference by Supreme Court Justice Connie Clark, Hamilton County General Sessions Court Judge Alexander McVeagh, Davidson County General Sessions Judge Rachel Bell, and by staff from the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Across the country, three in five people involved in a civil legal case, which includes family law, employment law, real estate and landlord tenant law, and other non-criminal litigation, do not have an attorney and are “self-represented.” SRLN supports and evaluates innovative services and strategies to create a user-friendly legal system for self-represented litigants. The group supports justice system professionals focused on the question of how best to reform all aspects of the legal system so that self-represented litigants experience the courts and the legal system as a consumer-oriented environment guided by the principles of equal protection and due process. The ATJ Commission provides collaborative leadership to create solutions and resources that address and eliminate barriers to justice for all.

Individual sessions tackled the access to justice issue from a number of different angles, exploring, among other topics, how to enlist partners from the bar and bench to expand access and how to use technology to reach those in need. Attendees also heard about the innovative steps that some states have taken to try to ensure that their citizens are able to find legal resources.

Justice Clark and former Tennessee Bar Association President and former ATJ Commission Chair Buck Lewis, a shareholder at Baker Donelson in Memphis, led a session about engaging the bar and the bench to further the cause of access to justice.  

Justice Clark noted the leadership role that the Tennessee Supreme Court has taken in making access to justice a priority in the state. Justice Clark is the only current justice on the Supreme Court to have been on the Court at the time that the Access to Justice Commission was created. She still serves as the Court’s liaison to the Commission. She mentioned several ways that the Court has incentivized the practice of pro bono, including by offering CLE hours for pro bono work and by holding several ceremonies throughout the state each year to honor attorneys who have completed pro bono.

“Particularly to law students and young lawyers, coming to those events, being recognized, having a picture taken with a member of the Supreme Court, having a certificate signed by all of us that says we know you did this last year when you didn’t have to, and we value you for doing it, makes a difference,” Justice Clark said.

Lewis agreed that the Court has been an essential driver of the state’s 50 percent increase in the number of attorneys reporting pro bono over the past decade. Tennessee attorneys currently have one of the highest pro bono rates in the country, and Tennessee is considered a model state for access to justice.

“The Court’s strong support has been critical in that effort,” he said. “The fact that the Court and the state bar were in lockstep was critical to that effort.”

Lewis said he sees many promising trends in the campaign to expand access to justice in the state, including increasing participation from corporate legal departments.

He thinks that even greater increases in pro bono could occur in the state if more people made what he called the “business case” for pro bono to law students and attorneys.

“If you’re a young lawyer, you’re going to get to take a deposition faster if you do pro bono, you’re going to get to go to trial faster if you do pro bono, you’re going to get to argue appeals faster if you do pro bono,” Lewis said. “You’re going to be more qualified and more credentialed faster if you do pro bono. You’re going to know more lawyers throughout the community if you do pro bono. You’re going to have more networks for referrals, you’re going to have a better chance to be appointed to a bar leadership position or maybe to run for judge if you do pro bono.”

Other sessions focused on the utilization of technology to identify and meet unmet legal needs. For instance, one session featured a discussion of LIFT Dane, a Wisconsin-based project the purpose of which is “to provide efficient, technology driven legal assistance to clear civil legal barriers to economic prosperity for Dane County families, to transform legal and court systems to prevent economic drags, and to contribute to national reform movements to improve access to civil legal justice.”

LIFT Dane Project Manager Marsha M. Mansfield described how the team sought to pull public data from a variety of sources to create a “legal tune-up” app that could let people know if there were red flags on their record that could hinder their efforts to find or keep employment.

“Our hope was that we would be able to gather the info ourselves and approach people all in one place instead of people having to go to this office and that office to solve problems,” Mansfield said.

The key is to inform people of potential problems that they may not even be aware of.

“People don’t advocate for themselves in the legal system…because they don’t even recognize they have a legal issue,” Nicole Bradick, the CEO of tech design and development firm Theory and Principle, said at the session.

The LIFT Dane team said that not only would the app alert users to potential legal problems, but it would help free up needed legal resources for more complex cases.

“There is a role for lawyers, and complexity is what we’re trained for,” Sarah Davis, associate director and clinical professor at the Center for Patient Partnerships at the University of Wisconsin. “If we can help other people through technology it will free legal aid lawyers and those doing pro bono work to do those hard cases and not be overtaxed.”

One purpose of the SRLN conference was to allow representatives from different state governments and court systems to share information about how they work to reach self-represented litigants. One such session featured Hamilton County General Sessions Court Judge Alexander McVeagh, who discussed a drive in Tennessee to use an online dispute resolution platform to resolve medical bill disputes before they get to court. Another featured Davidson County General Sessions Court Judge Rachel Bell discussing her innovative Music City Community Court, which was founded with the mission “to create initiatives focused on preventative, restorative and diversionary justice centered on the concept that justice does not stop at the courthouse steps.”

Two members of New Jersey’s court system were on hand to discuss their state’s unique ombudsman program. The state has 17 ombudsmen, one each for the state’s 15 vicinages, or judicial districts, and two who work directly with the New Jersey Administrative Office of the Courts.

These ombudsmen “provide procedural guidance to court users, assist the public in understanding and navigating the court system, receive complaints, and offer community outreach to increase public trust and confidence in the courts.”

Janie Rodriguez is the chief of Litigant Services and Outreach at the New Jersey Administrative Office of the Courts. She described the need for ombudsmen in the state.

People who come to court can be like visitors “to a foreign land,” she said. On the other hand, those who work in the court system, “know how to get where we’re going and get what we need. We speak in legal language that lay people can not necessarily interpret and sometimes despite our best efforts when someone steps into a courthouse, there could be signage, greeters, people around to help, and they still feel that sense of disorientation. If they don’t get the help they need and get their important business done, they might lose their money, job, family, or freedom.”  

Vanessa Caldwell is the ombudsman for New Jersey Vicinage 15.

She explained that her job is not to give anyone legal advice, but to provide court users with a clear set of options they can choose from related to next steps in the legal process.

“We make people feel comfortable and empower them so they can do it themselves,” Caldwell said.

Sometimes that involves conducting an assessment to determine if someone has needs related to language proficiency or a mental health condition.

We will sit down and have an appointment at a table and assess ADA accommodations, assess if they need an interpreter,” she said.  “Even with mental health concerns, we make partnerships in our community with our mental health agencies so we can refer litigants as needed.”

Court users are also referred to lawyer networks who offer no cost or low cost consultations.

In recent years, ombudsmen have taken the lead on the issue of expungements, going to churches or community organizations to hold workshops and give seminars.

Because ombudsmen spend so much time out in the community they are uniquely qualified to determine what specific needs are bubbling up from vicinage to vicinage.

“The ombudsmen serve as the eyes and they ears of the court because they talk to the community,” Rodriguez said, “identifying local needs for legal resources and community services.”

Data collected by the state shows that the program has been remarkably successful since its launch. When the program first went statewide in 2005, ombudsmen assisted a little over 9,000 people. In 2019, they served 75,815 people, the vast majority of whom were self-represented litigants.

If you missed the conference, video is available for the following presentations:

Opening Plenary

Creating a Self Service One Stop Shop: From Forms to Navigators, Taking a Holistic Approach to Self-Help Services

Developing a Strategy to Use Case-Level Court Data to Improve Advocacy and Support for Self-Represented Litigants

Exploring Strategies to Connect ABA Free Legal Answers and Self-Help

How Pro Se Status Can Bias Treatment and Decision Making

How Should Judges Deal with Self-Represented Litigants?

Non-Lawyer Navigators in State Courts: An Emerging Consensus

Problem Solving: How to Engage the Private Bar and Court Leadership

Problem Solving: Interacting with SRLs –Where are the Boundaries?

A 2-Gen Approach to Legal Services: Partnering Human Services and Legal Services to Create Cycles of Success

A Taste of Tech Projects: Empowering SRLs Through Scalable Projects

Access to Justice: A Powerful Tool in Reducing Poverty and Increasing Well-Being

Justice Does NOT Stop at the Courthouse Steps

Looking Beyond Lawyers: Building Community-Based Navigator Programs to Strengthen Our Legal Ecosystem

One-Stop-Shop Access to Justice: Community Based Strategies

Self-Represented Litigant Coordinators: Capitalizing on Court Staff to Better Assist SRLs

Closing Plenary

Attorney Buck Lewis and Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Connie Clark host a discussion at the SRLN conference.