University of Denver

Making the Best of Representing Yourself in Court

Associate Director of Communications
IAALS Intern

IAALS’ own Natalie Knowlton was recently interviewed for a Chicago Tribune advice column for self-represented litigants about the problems they face and the tools available that can help increase access to justice for those navigating the legal system without a lawyer.

About 75 percent of parties in civil cases are self-represented, most commonly in family law and debt cases. According to Knowlton, these people often represent themselves due to financial constraints; given the choice, they would prefer legal assistance. And, the evidence suggests that self-representation can be detrimental to litigation outcomes: 62 percent of state trial judges surveyed by the ABA said self-represented litigants do not do as well in court as their represented peers.

“Judges can only do so much,” Knowlton explained. “They can’t walk a litigant through the process and they can’t present evidence on their behalf. . . . We find many judicial officers not knowing how to handle these situations. The process is really built for attorneys but increasingly it’s not attorneys who are using it.”

To bridge the gap between this access to justice gap, states like Illinois and Indiana have created commissions with the goal of improving access to justice. IAALS also has several resources available, like our “Court Compass Project: Inventory of Court Technology Solutions Supporting Self-Represented Litigants” (a database listing technology solutions by state that courts offer to litigants) and a series of guides and toolkits for both litigants and law professionals on unbundled legal services.

“It is important for litigants to do their due diligence and research at the outset,” Knowlton said. “If the end result is important, finding additional information and some affordable legal services might be a good idea.”