About the Study

Every year, hundreds of thousands of people enter the U.S. courts seeking a divorce, separation, or resolution of child-related matters (like custody or child support). With the U.S. divorce rate at an estimated 50 percent, most people’s experience with the American justice system is through the family courts. Some individuals hire a lawyer to help them through the entire process. But, a large—and growing—number do not have legal representation for some or all of their case.

People with a court case (litigants) represent themselves (self-representation) for any number of reasons, including the cost of a lawyer or a belief that their case is simple enough to handle themselves. Whatever the reason, a considerable portion of all those who use our nation’s family courts are self-represented. In some courts, the rate of self-representation is as high as 90 percent.

In order to explore this growing trend, IAALS conducted the Cases Without Counsel study in four court locations around the country:

  1. Davidson County, Tennessee
  2. Franklin County, Massachusetts
  3. Larimer County, Colorado
  4. Multnomah County, Oregon

This study is a first-of-its-kind, multi-state project that systematically asked self-represented litigants in family court about their experience with the legal process.

Participation entailed a one-on-one interview with a University of Denver researcher, in which participants were asked a number of questions about being without an attorney in family court. For example:

  • Why did you represent yourself?
  • What was it like being without a lawyer?
  • What were the easiest and most difficult parts of representing yourself?
  • What resources helped you with the legal process?
  • What advice would you give to others who are going to represent themselves?

This study has been approved by the University of Denver’s Institutional Review Board (#624390), and builds on similar research undertaken in Canada by Dr. Julie Macfarlane’s National Self-Represented Litigants Project (NSRLP). NSRLP is committed to collaboration to enhance the responsiveness of the Canadian justice system to self-represented litigants, and to continuing dialogue among stakeholders who include litigants, lawyers, judges, and court service staff.