Litigants Without Lawyers: Measuring Success in Family Court
Marsha M. Mansfield
Volume 67, Issue 5, 1389-426
As thousands of litigants access our court systems without lawyers, the debate whether these litigants receive procedural and substantive justice has intensified. Nationwide, eighty percent of those accessing the court system in a family law matter do so without the assistance of a lawyer. As the numbers continue to increase exponentially and access to free or low cost legal services diminishes, courts, lawyers, legal service organizations, and law schools throughout the country continue to experiment with alternates to full-scale representation that can provide self-represented litigants with adequate legal assistance.
Although some researchers have analyzed the overall success ratio for cases where legal representation has been offered or provided in contrast to limited scope or no legal assistance, little measurement has been undertaken to quantify the success of these courthouse clinics over self-representation. The project described in this Article is an attempt to measure that success.
This Article describes the legal landscape for family law litigants across the nation and efforts to provide access to justice for self-represented litigants. The Article then explains a study of self-represented family law litigants in Dane County, Wisconsin. Two groups of cases are analyzed: family law cases processed through the Dane County court system during 2010 where neither party was represented by counsel, and cases, during the same time period, where self-represented litigants received legal assistance from students at the University of Wisconsin Law School’s Family Court Clinic. A survey of those users was undertaken to determine whether the services provided enabled self-represented litigants to successfully complete the legal task for which they sought assistance.
The Article then discusses methodologies and reforms that may better address the needs of self-represented litigants. This study has implications for restructuring legal practice as well as for improving self-help initiatives.