SRL Experience “the same” Both Sides of the Border: Preliminary Results from the US SRL StudyNSRLP
The Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver IAALS has shared the preliminary results of their study “Cases without Counsel”. The IAALS study replicates the methodology of the Canadian SRL research, but gathered data from counties in 4 US states – Oregon, Colorado, Massachusetts and Tennessee.
A reflection of the demographics of the counties studied, the US sample presently comprises a slightly larger low-income group and a slightly smaller mid/higher-income group than the Canadian study, but otherwise (age, gender, education) is very similar to the demographics of the Canadian sample.
While data collection is ongoing and the final formal analysis will be released in early 2016, it is clear from the preliminary results that the most significant findings of the Canadian 2011-2013 study are mirrored in the US results.
The summary of parallel findings is illustrated below with verbatim quotes from a group of SRLs – one from each of the four states in the study – who spoke at a meeting of the IAALS Honoring Families Initiative Advisory Board in Denver on August 21st where the preliminary findings were presented by the US research team (Natalie Knowlton, Corina Gerety and Logan Cornett).
Just like the Canadian study (as well as earlier studies in Australia (2000) and England & Wales (2011)), US SRLs reported that:
- The primary motivation for self-representation is financial, that is, it is the result of the unaffordability of private legal services and the extremely limited availability of public legal assistance
“One lawyer told me she worked on a sliding scale – I asked her, ‘can you take a nickel’?”
- At the same time, motivation is complex and cumulative – for example, unaffordability may be exacerbated by the assumption that the resources available on the Internet make it possible to do this without a lawyer; and/or disillusionment with earlier experience of private legal services
Some American SRLs talked about being “typecast” by some of those working in the legal system:
“Don’t forget that there are people who are not crazy out there, they’re just having to figure this out for themselves.”
SRLs want help from lawyers
In the Canadian SRL study, 86% of the sample sought legal advice at some point in their case (53% had previously retained counsel but ran out of money), and many sought such assistance over and over again (for example, from pro bono providers, or by seeking unbundled legal services).
The US study will report that:
- Most SRLs seek legal advice and assistance (pro bono, unbundled services, or retained a lawyer earlier on)
- One quarter of the sample (to date) have previously retained a lawyer
- The most common advice that SRLs had for others was “get a lawyer”
“I asked everyone for everything – that was how I got through.
The self-help center was awesome…but it still wasn’t the same as having a lawyer.”
SRL frustration with current help services
Like the Canadian study, the US study is also interviewing court staff and some other service providers.
- Just as we found in Canada, the responses from court staff and service providers match almost perfectly responses from SRLs to similar questions about SRL motivations, frustrations and needs.
- American SRLs are generally positive about the assistance offered by court staff, but are often frustrated by the limits placed on their assistance (the legal advice/ legal information dilemma). We had the same result in the Canadian study.
- Just as in Canada, US SRLs emphasize the need for face-to-face assistance as well as better web-based resources.
- Another striking similarity between the findings of the two studies is how often the frustrations of SRLs in the US study focus on navigating the process of the lawsuit – especially archaic court processes and complex documents – rather than on their final outcomes.
“I have a doctorate and I am used to reading technical material – but I would read a sentence over and over again, and I still couldn’t make sense of it.”
Impact of self-representation
And finally, preliminary findings from the US study indicate that the impact of self-representation is often severe and multifaceted: including emotional trauma, health issues and financial consequences (personal debt, employment difficulties etc). Just as in Canada, American SRLs spoke about the tremendous importance of personal emotional support as well as technical assistance.
“I lost three jobs in two years because I had to keep coming back to court.”
“My whole mental being was affected…this stuff is rolling around in your frontal lobe and everything else in your life becomes a distraction.”
“I felt that because I didn’t have a lawyer, I didn’t have a voice, no one listened…I felt like I was speaking to rocks.”
The US study added an additional question to the Canadian interview protocol to track what SRLs say about the impact of representing themselves on their relationships with their children. The final IAALS report will share this data.
While we don’t have the full picture out of the US study yet, we expected to see similar data to the Canadian study and so far that seems to be the case. It was staggering to see how closely the experiences described by American SRLs – whether in states that offer significant assistance to SRLs or those that do less – mirrored what Canadian SRLs told us.
The data consistency on motivations, experiences, and impact is stark. The time to contest these findings – for example,
- To distract ourselves with a focus on the small number of truly vexatious litigants (who also need our help)
- To minimize the traumatic impact and consequences of self-representation
- To assure ourselves that new levels of service (while most welcome) are “enough”
– is now over.
Now we know what we know, we must act.
That means action
- By the private Bar (offer unbundled legal services and legal coaching – agree to relax rules restricting para-legals)
- By the Bench (agree rules on the use of McKenzie Friends – understand that SRLs appearing before you are anxious and intimidated, not troublemakers)
- By Legal Aid Boards (add unbundling certificates in order to serve more people – extend information services)
- By Courts (clarify what court staff can do to assist SRLs with legal information – provide court “Navigators” to assist SRLs and check their forms before filing)