Imagine competing against a professional – racing an Olympic sprinter, playing trivia against a Jeopardy champion, hitting a fastball from a Red Sox pitcher. Now, imagine if what’s on the line is not just your pride but your house, your savings, or custody of your children.
Unfortunately, more than half of involved people find themselves in exactly this situation when they need to go to court to settle issues such as divorce, child custody, or eviction. Unable to afford to hire a lawyer, they try to argue their cases against legal professionals with years of training and experience in a court system that is nearly impossible for ordinary people to navigate.
With so many obstacles, they face a long shot at a fair hearing of their case. Unlike in criminal cases, people who have a civil justice problem are not guaranteed lawyers to represent them. For cases ranging from landlords unfairly evicting tenants to debt collectors wrongfully garnishing wages, individuals must either hire an attorney, find a free legal aid attorney, or represent themselves.
Yet lawyers’ services are too expensive for many people, and legal aid organizations have strict income requirements along with limited capacities to take on cases. As a result, as many as 50 percent of all civil court litigants in Massachusetts represented themselves in court in 2018, according to a report by the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission. Unsurprisingly, litigants without lawyers do not fare as well in their cases as those with legal representation. It’s hard to compete against a trained lawyer, and it’s extremely difficult to navigate our complex legal system. That many self-represented litigants come from disadvantaged backgrounds makes that hardship even more serious.
The result is a civil court system that tips the scales of justice towards wealth and privilege. In that system, landlords evict law-abiding tenants, debt collectors exploit consumers, and the government unfairly denies benefits to young veterans – not because of the merits of cases but because one side has the money to hire a lawyer and one does not.
Even if we can’t provide everyone with a lawyer who needs one, there are new tools that, thanks to technology and widespread access to the Internet, can give court users a fairer shot at arguing and winning their cases.
A new report from the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice shows how Massachusetts can take a big step towards a more level playing field in court for everyone by establishing a comprehensive self-help website for those representing themselves in civil court.
The Massachusetts judicial system currently provides some informational materials through its self-help web page (as well as in-person help at its Court Service Centers), but the resources provided are incomplete and difficult to navigate. Additionally, the current resources the court has created do not fully harness promising legal technologies such as programs that allow court documents to be completed online.
In its final form, a “Virtual Court Service Center” could replicate the success of Massachusetts’ in-person help centers, while being more accessible to people across the Commonwealth. Such a website would provide informational guides and how-to materials that explain the ins and outs of different case types, and how litigants can represent themselves in court.
In addition, the website would help court users complete legal paperwork through document assembly programs, which let users enter their relevant personal and case information and then receive auto-completed documents they can file with the court.
Finally, this online help center could include a remote assistance center like a customer service line where users could call or message attorneys and paralegals who would answer their legal questions free of charge.
Developing a Virtual Court Service Center would likely require new funding from the court system, but expanded online self-help services would bring greater efficiency and cost savings to our courts.
A lawyer can only help a few clients at one time, but a self-help website can be used by thousands of people at once. Some might argue that funding for online self-help services could be better spent on more legal aid to those in need, but we shouldn’t view legal aid as a competitor to online self-help assistance. Instead, we should provide self-help resources to those who can help themselves and reserve legal aid for those most in need or those with complex cases.
By developing an online self-help center, Massachusetts has the opportunity to make our civil courts fairer for people forced to represent themselves. Improved and expanded online self-help assistance will help to re-balance the scales of justice and ensure that even if court users have to compete against legal professionals, they have the tools necessary to give them a fighting chance.
Jake Hofstetter is a research and policy associate for the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law & Justice.