Familiarity Breeds Comfort: Judges and Self-Represented Litigants

September 14, 2023

"judge presiding over case in courtroom"In a recent informal poll of judges conducted by the National Judicial College, a large majority expressed they felt comfortable dealing with self-represented litigants. Out of 567 judges who responded, around 86% expressed some level of comfort—39% felt “entirely comfortable” and 47% felt “mostly comfortable.” About 12% were “not very comfortable” and only 2.5% were “uncomfortable.” Experience with self-represented litigants seems to enhance judges’ comfort levels.

Many judges noted that they often encounter self-represented litigants in their courtrooms and, in doing so, have learned to accommodate their needs. Interacting with these litigants is not always straight-forward, though. Some judges expressed challenges in determining how much assistance to provide them without compromising fairness, while others mentioned providing information to them to help them make informed decisions. Some judges sought specialized training to ensure they handle such cases ethically.  

Judges also pointed out challenges in dealing with litigants who have mental health issues or who belong to groups like “sovereign citizens” that reject court authority. Despite these difficulties, many judges emphasized treating all individuals with respect and maintaining courtroom decorum, even when addressing disruptive behavior.

While many judges reported that they felt a level of comfort dealing with self-represented litigants, this does not necessarily mean they fully understand what self-represented litigants think and feel while in court—or how to ensure their needs are fully met and procedural justice is achieved. And, many state court systems haven't adequately provided the necessary guidance to trial judges for adapting to handle self-represented litigants who lack legal expertise.

To address this gap, IAALS developed Ensuring the Right to Be Heard: Guidance for Trial Judges in Cases Involving Self-Represented Litigants. This guide outlines effective methods for resolving cases involving self-represented litigants, offering practical examples from the context of family law. The guide is designed to help trial judges better manage such cases and ensure fair proceedings for everyone involved.

Ensuring the Right to Be Heard lays out the challenges and wishes that have been expressed by self-represented litigants themselves to help judges more adequately adjust their procedures to fit the needs of both parties. For example, judges may alter how they typically deal with self-represented litigants if they knew that they often feel intimidated, isolated, and vulnerable, and that they desire to have their humanity recognized by not being rebuked or shamed in public.

This guide also lays out proven practices and guidelines for how to conduct a hearing when only one of the parties is represented by counsel. Because trial judges have reported this situation as being the most difficult to navigate, this guide provides best practices on how to frame the subject matter of the hearing and how to elicit the information they need from self-represented litigants. There is also guidance on how to articulate decisions from the bench and provide instructions on how to appeal, which most self-represented litigants are unaware of how to do properly. 

The National Judicial College’s poll reflects that judges are adapting to working with self-represented litigants and striving to ensure fair proceedings and respect for all parties involved. With the help of this guide, judges can feel more comfortable and confident as they adapt their practices to best suit the needs of everyone that comes through their courtroom. 

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