George Washington-Style Justice in an Online World
Technology has changed the way we do business. People today “serve themselves” online to more information, education, shopping, and entertainment experiences than ever before. We expect accessible resources and quick delivery. This cultural shift impacts the ways we deliver justice in our country, and equipping individuals to represent themselves in court, pro se cases, is a growing trend. While many factors beyond technology contribute to a rise in self-represented litigants, a 2016 study by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) shows that in 1992, 95 percent of plaintiffs and defendants hired legal counsel in general jurisdiction courts. Today that number is only 46 percent. This reality presents an opportunity for design to enrich one of our oldest protected rights as citizens of the United States.
Predating the Constitution, President George Washington signed into law the statute that guarantees the right to self-representation. For over 225 years, The Judiciary Act of 1789 has protected this right, but access to this right alone is not sufficient for successful implementation. Today’s 21st century courthouse designs must support the ideals of our forefather’s vision of justice.
As courthouse designers, we are exploring ways to square these new service expectations within the traditional courthouse context. Programmatic pro se models account for this growing number of self-represented litigants (SRLs). Partnering with court managers to define spaces, we are sculpting areas and methods to serve the public in the form of “self-help” by implementing technology, leveraging novel approaches to space design, and facilitating education opportunities for members of the general public who choose to represent themselves.
Integrating technology into the courthouse to serve the needs of the increasing population of SRLs is easy enough. But when funding is sparse, as 30 states indicated as their biggest obstacle per the NCSC study, other resources must be available to support the population including websites to provide information, online forms, guides, video conference workshops, live chat programs or “office” hours for in-person or telephone advice. While technology has created a more accessible process, the increase in self-represented litigants also influences physical space allocation in courthouses.
Evolving the law library to accommodate self-help resources may be a natural progression. Space allocations for books are giving way to self-help stations, and providing digital access to resources for SRLs. This approach provides greater access to court files, transcripts, and evidence viewing for proper formulation of cases. Clerk of Court public waiting spaces could convert to accommodate digital self-help stations. Attorney lounges can re-locate in close proximity to self-help areas such as law libraries where the public accesses legal advice from attorneys.
In Rock Island County, Illinois, a new courthouse addition optimizes dual-purpose space that includes self-help stations strategically integrated into the Clerk of Court’s customer service area and the law library. In both cases, we located the self-help areas adjacent to staff for direct assistance without dedicating full-time staff to this function.
The smaller law library accommodates only a minimal number of physical books, exchanging space for self-help research kiosks. Locating the law library between the Court Administration and the attorney’s lounge encouraged visibility, oversight, and direct support for self-reliant litigants. This project design exemplifies a much-needed programmatic function integration into a newly expanded facility without adversely compromising budget or space requirements. This success strategy resulted from the client’s early goal setting and support for evolution of the design over the course of the project.
Education of self-represented litigants facilitates positive outcomes. Leveraging technology and tailoring physical spaces for this growing group creates efficiency in the courtroom. Providing greater access to knowledge better prepares pro se clients for court and provides context to help manage expectations. Developing a network of educators familiar with the court system is a key ingredient to success for those navigating the law with a host of challenges including language barriers, illiteracy, poverty, and limited experience with the justice system.
Judges, court clerks, court administrators, Bar Association members, law librarians, and paralegals are examples of educators who may assist in the success of these programs. When resources are limited, providing informational material or targeted access to volunteers and paid staff is another viable option. A well-executed self-help process can effectively mitigate emotional stress and feelings of uncertainty that many pro se litigants experience, as well as expedite case flow for a smoother judicial process.
The number of self-represented litigants will likely continue to increase while technology continues to evolve. These two realities create a synergy of opportunities for court designers to improve the way citizens access their right to self-representation as set forth by our forefathers.