Volume 27

The Civil Self-Representation Crisis: The Need for More Data and Less Complacency

by Christine E. Cerniglia

This Article analyzes self-represented litigants (SRLs) in the civil justice system. The increased number of filings by SRLs is often referred to as a crisis. There are several challenges that SRLs pose in individual courtrooms and to our civil justice system as a whole. Even with the recent trend of standardized self-help forms, SRLs have difficulty with procedural matters, articulating their cases sufficiently, and other formalities of the legal process. This in turn affects the overall efficiency of the system and deprives SRLs of their right to equal access to justice. The legal profession has not caught up with the rising numbers of SRLs, and very few procedures for uniform reporting exist in order to study and monitor the effect of SRLs nationwide. The civil justice system is especially lacking a national reporting mechanism to study the increase of SRLs; however, many continue to refer to this significant increase as a crisis while not having concrete numbers to understand the complexity of issues. This Article advocates for a systems approach to study the SRL crisis with all stakeholders at the table in order to effectuate much needed change.

To properly understand whether we should refer to the increased SRL numbers as a crisis, this Article first explores the term “crisis” and crisis management principles to better understand a more formal process to properly label a current moment as a true crisis. Many times, the term “crisis” is used loosely to reference an emergency with the need for an urgent response. However, without a systems approach to analyze whether an event truly qualifies as a crisis, any urgent response might be ineffective, and a crisis may continue to grow until it reaches the point of a full-fledged disaster.

This Article makes a simple gesture to expose the deficit in data and reporting structures and suggests a call for urgency to organize the collection of data to study outcomes through a systems approach at a national level.


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