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Self-Represented Litigation

Charles Dyer consults with law libraries and court systems to address their needs in serving people who are trying to represent themselves in court. Variously known as self-represented litigants, self-help litigants, pro se litigants, or pro per litigants, these litigants experience great difficulty trying to do their own legal work. Two factors, the difficulty of the case itself and the ability and preparation of the litigant, cause self-represented litigants to fall into different groups:

  • those who can do the work themselves, usually with access to a law library;

  • those who, with the aid of prepared forms or electronic systems, can do the work themselves;

  • those who, with limited advice from an agency, such as a small claims advisor, family court facilitator, can do the work themselves;

  • those who, with limited legal representation through unbundled legal services, can do the work themselves;

  • those who cannot complete the work themselves with these aids and who then must use a law library to finish their work;

  • those who would prefer to use a law library in addition to completing the work through services themselves in order to improve their understanding;

  • those who cannot do the work themselves without full service representation from a lawyer.

No one approach to self-represented litigants can serve all these groups. A well-run system would need the cooperative effort of the court and several agencies to see that no one is left behind. Charles Dyer’s specialty is helping such partnerships work with the most difficult groups, those who cannot rely on prepared forms or short consultations alone. Many such self-represented litigants need a well-run public law library or substitute organization to obtain justice.

As Director of the San Diego County Public Law Library from 1987 to 2005, Charles Dyer observed the tremendous increase in library customers who were representing themselves in court. With the resources of one of the largest public law libraries in the United States, Charles and his staff were able to fashion new ways to serve these clientele. In addition to their own development, Charles have been an observer of best practices from other law libraries and continues to keep in touch with leaders in the field. The San Diego County Public Law Library has become nationally known for its work in creating classes for the public, for court administrators, and for attorneys. Its research guides for self-represented litigants are used as examples across the nation.

The San Diego County Public Law Library also became a leader in developing several useful partnerships with other agencies serving self-represented litigants. It commonly works with the San Diego County Superior Court to train clerks on how to make referrals to the library and to work on grants together. It meets with agencies such as the Family Court Facilitator Office in order to work out arrangements for joint cooperation and aid. It developed a law clinic, given small amounts of unbundled legal advice, first in partnership with the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program and then later with the University of San Diego School of Law.

But programs such as these need not be done in exactly the same way. Charles Dyer has studied other types of organizational patterns that work better in different political situations. The real standard for such programs is, to borrow a phrase from the Balanced Scorecard management theory, “outcomes, not outputs.” Are the self-represented litigants really served well? Do they obtain the justice they deserve? Can they obtain such justice at a reasonable cost in their time and money? Yet, can the system be handled so as to make and keep the courts and other agencies as efficient as possible?

Presentation on Serving Self-Represented Litigants

The following link is to my own page that I created to display the materials I created for a presentation on how the court libraries in the State of New York could serve self represented litigants. This link is also listed on my list of external links.

  • "New York State Unified Court System Presentation, October 24, 2006." This page was originally created for participants at my presentation and workshop and for other New York State Unified Court System officials and librarians who could not attend. The presentation and workshop were given at the New York State Judicial Institute at Pace University in White Plains, New York on October 24, 2006.

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