University of Denver

New Study Explores Nonlawyer Navigator Programs around the Country

Director, Special Projects

As state courts work to serve the substantial numbers of litigants who navigate the civil and family court process without an attorney, they are taking a variety of approaches. Some have fillable forms, some have established self-help centers, some make available digital self-help resources, and some have implemented simplified processes. Some courts have done all of the above, and more.

One approach to increasing self-represented litigant (SRL) access to help during the court process is the use of “nonlawyer navigators.” A recent study conducted by Mary E. McClymont, Senior Fellow at the Justice Lab at Georgetown Law Center, Nonlawyer Navigators in State Courts: An Emerging Consensus, identified and analyzed 23 nonlawyer navigator programs that have been established in more than 80 locations in 15 states and the District of Columbia. Broadly defined, these navigators are non-attorney, community actors (i.e., not court staff) who work across a number of case types—such as family, debt collection, and housing—to assist those who do not have an attorney. The study presents a new look at the contours of these programs and suggests recommendations to inform the further integration of nonlawyer navigators into justice system ecosystems.

Various Approaches to Nonlawyer Navigator Programs

Interestingly, the study found no discernable single model for the navigator program; rather, there were considerable variations in staffing, scope, and design.

The most common staffing arrangements involved paid staff, AmeriCorps members, and community volunteers (including high school, undergraduate, and graduate students). All of the studied programs required navigators to undergo training prior to assisting litigants, and navigators were supervised in some manner during their tenure with the programs.

With considerable variation across programs, navigators assisted litigants in a number of ways, including help filling out paperwork, physically navigating the courthouse, getting information and referrals, and communicating with opposing counsel. Some navigators also reported serving as emotional support to self-represented litigants. While many of those served by these programs were self-represented, some services were offered to both parties in a case.

Irrespective of the functions and case types served in the programs, however, the distinction between legal information and legal advice was firmly upheld; no unauthorized practice of law concerns with the navigator programs were reported during the study.

Program Impacts and Recommendations for Further Integration

At the time of McClymont’s study, several of the programs had conducted an evaluation to assess impact. One of the more common themes emerging from these assessments was the beneficial impact on the completeness and accuracy of self-represented litigants’ forms and filings, as well as overall SRL preparedness. Litigant confidence handling the process and satisfaction with program services were generally high in these evaluations. With respect to procedural justice metrics, the impact of giving litigants a venue through which to be heard and share their stories had positive reported impacts.

One of the key recommendations emerging from the study was the need to secure resources to sustain navigator programs. According to the report, “many programs lack the institutional commitment to garner necessary resources for longer-term program sustainability, let alone expansion.” The report also highlights the opportunities presented by these programs for courts to learn more about the self-represented litigant experience. These navigators “offer untapped resources for courts as they work to identify opportunities for simplification, as well as gains in efficiency and customer service.”

The full Nonlawyer Navigators in State Courts report is available here.