State courts are failing to adequately serve self-represented litigants who, on average, have worse outcomes than litigants represented by attorneys.
A report from Massachusetts Appleseed, with cooperation from the Massachusetts Trial Court
“It felt very much like wandering through a room with no lights on, and you’d bump into something, you’d ask somebody about it, and they’d give you a little flashlight and say, ‘go that way’… Nobody ever turned the lights on in the whole room to give us an idea of exactly what it should look like and how the process should look.”
The number of people facing civil crises in Massachusetts who are unable to afford an attorney and must represent themselves is growing. Our justice system was designed for lawyers and judges to navigate – not ordinary people, and with nowhere near enough civil legal aid for those who need it, disparities between those who can afford an attorney and those who cannot are worsening.
Court Service Centers exist in six courthouses across the Commonwealth to provide legal information and guidance to litigants who seek assistance. But despite the excellent work of Court Service Centers (CSC) and other significant efforts made by the Massachusetts Trial Court, the overwhelming needs of civil litigants representing themselves remain unmet.
Our justice system must work for everybody. Not just for those who can afford to hire an attorney.
To address the crisis of self-representation in our civil courts, Massachusetts Appleseed recommends that the Trial Court create a Virtual Court Service Center that combines technological advances with best practices from other states to replicate many of the services provided by the six existing brick-and-mortar Court Service Centers. By making the CSCs’ resources available in a user and mobile friendly website that could be accessed anywhere, the Trial Court could significantly increase the number of self-represented litigants who can obtain the help they need with their civil legal issues.
In its fully realized form, the Virtual Court Service Center would “turn on the lights” for court users, allowing them to understand the processes, actions, and outcomes that await them in their cases and empowering them to effectively advocate for themselves in court.
Many thanks to our pro bono partners, Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP and Nutter McClennen & Fish LLP, as well as the many project consultants and research assistants without whom this report would not have been possible.
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