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Federal Courts React to Tide of Pro Se Litigants

Monday, March 09, 2009

In response to a growing tide of pro se litigants in federal courts, legal centers in at least three districts have been set up to provide services and advice to parties who represent themselves in civil cases.

The newest center opened on March 5 at a federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles. Last year, a similar one opened in the federal courthouse in San Francisco. A third program, operating out of the federal courthouse in Chicago, has been operating since 2006.

The centers reflect the increasing number of pro se litigants in federal courts, particularly in employment and certain types of civil rights lawsuits.

"It's part of a whole movement that's taking place in the courts to try to recognize, as a practical matter, that most people just can't afford lawyers these days," said Richard Zorza, coordinator of the Self Represented Litigation Network, which works with organizations on pro se litigant issues.

About 150 centers exist nationwide to assist pro se litigants, but most are part of state courts and vary from clinics to telephone hotlines to online resources, Zorza said. "It's certainly unique doing it in federal court," he said.

Unlike state courts, where pro se litigants frequently show up in divorces, the vast majority in federal court appear with employment claims, such as violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act and other anti-discrimination statutes.

The new pro se centers focus on civil cases and, for the most part, litigants who are not prisoners. The services are free. At the Pro Se Clinic in Los Angeles, which covers the Central District of California, a poster advertising its services in the courthouse lobby already had drawn up to 15 people a day before its official opening on March 5, said Janet Lewis, supervising attorney of the clinic.

Lewis works for Public Counsel, a nonprofit legal organization that operates the clinic, which came about after judges grew frustrated with pro se litigants.

Many of their problems are procedural. "The complaints are not put together in a way so that the court actually feels comfortable they can use them," she said.

Lewis is one of two attorneys in the clinic who provide legal advice, review briefs or refer litigants to pro bono attorneys, said HernĂ¡n Vera, president of Public Counsel. But they stop short of writing briefs or appearing in court.

In San Francisco, the Legal Help Center, sponsored by the Bar Association of San Francisco's Volunteer Legal Services Program, opened in September.

"Often, there are people who are misguided in terms of not really understanding what the cause of action is, and what's recognizable, and the fact that they don't have a viable cause of action for one reason or the other," said U.S. Magistrate Judge Edward Chen of the Northern District of California, who came up with the idea of the clinic. "Often, people do have a cause of action but are at a loss as to how to prosecute their case."

He said the court has a handbook available to help pro se litigants with terms. But the handbook doesn't explain legal theories, he said.

Unlike attorneys at the other two centers, the supervising attorney of the San Francisco clinic, Jennifer Greengold, can give limited legal advice and write pleadings. But she can't go to court and can't do outside research for pro se litigants.

THE LEFKOW MURDERS

Chicago's pro se program, operated by the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, got started soon after the mother and husband of U.S. District Judge Joan H. Lefkow of the Northern District of Illinois were murdered, said Catherine Caporusso, staff attorney for the program. "That was by a pro se litigant," she said. "People were particularly compelled to do something about it."

The program recently expanded from three days to five days each week. While its attorneys do not appear in court, conduct legal research or write court documents, they can give advice on the merits of a case and refer litigants to pro bono counsel, Caporusso said.

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