University of Denver

Cases Without Counsel

Courts have responded to the increasing numbers of self-represented litigants in family cases in a number of ways, and, for the most part, these efforts have been informed largely by perspectives of judges, attorneys, and court staff. All too often, litigants are left out of conversations on improving the legal process. Our study, Cases Without Counsel: Experiences of Self-Representation in U.S. Family Court, asked self-represented litigants in family court about their experience with the legal process.

Director of Special Projects
Senior Legal Assistant
Director of Research

Most people’s experience with the American justice system is through the family courts. 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). Some individuals hire a lawyer to help them through the entire process. But a large and growing number do not have an attorney and proceed self-represented through the court system for some or all of their case.

Cases Without Counsel was a first-of-its-kind, multi-state qualitative empirical research study designed to explore experiences, behaviors, perceptions, and feelings from the participants’ perspective and in the participants’ own words. Through one-on-one interviews with self-represented litigants in family court and those in the court who interact with these litigants regularly (like judges, self-help center staff, and court clerks), IAALS systematically explored self-represented litigants’ experience with the legal process. The study built on qualitative empirical research undertaken in Canada by Dr. Julie Macfarlane.

The study confirmed that many self-represented litigants cannot afford an attorney and that the court process is very difficult without legal help. IAALS published the research findings in a standalone publication, Cases Without Counsel: Research on Experiences of Self-Representation in U.S. Family Courtwhich is written around the stories offered by participants. IAALS also published a set of comprehensive recommendations that flowed from the research: Cases Without Counsel: Our Recommendations after Listening to the Litigants. To help various stakeholders easily access these recommendations, IAALS also created a number of toolkits that include additional resources for learning more about or for helping implement the various recommendations.

IAALS formerly housed this work under its Honoring Families Initiative until 2018.

The findings in this research report focus on major themes revealed through the Cases Without Counsel study. In their own words, self-represented litigants and court professionals discuss the...
This Cases Without Counsel recommendations report includes the various stakeholder recommendations alongside materials and resources for those interested in learning more or implementing various...

In consideration of the findings from the Case Without Counsel study and others, including well-established national data on self-representation, IAALS launched the Court Compass project. The purpose of this project is to understand the experiences of individuals going through the divorce process without the assistance of a lawyer for some or all of their case, with the goal of making the process simpler and easier for others.

  • The Tennessee Access to Justice Commission 
  • Larimer County District Court
  • Multnomah County Circuit Court
  • Davidson County Circuit Court
  • Juvenile Court of Metropolitan Nashville and Davidson County
  • Franklin County Family and Probate Court
  • The Bohemian Foundation
  • The State Justice Institute
  • The State of Oregon
  • William J. Howe, III
  • Dr. Julie Macfarlane 
  • Sue Rice
  • Dr. Marsha Kline Pruett