About the Series

Richard Zorza, one of the founders and leaders of the access to justice (ATJ) movement, recently received the American Bar Association’s 2014 Louis M. Brown Award for Legal Access’ Lifetime Achievement Honor for decades of work on behalf of self-represented litigants. Not to be outdone, the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators passed a Resolution of Recognition “express[ing] their deep appreciation to Richard Zorza for his thoughtful, unique, and dedicated service, loyal support and guidance, and for his unfailing commitment to improving the state courts of this nation, and the Conferences extend to him their best wishes for the future.”  Richard was at the Open Society Institute with Mark O’Brien and Michael Hertz when they formed Pro Bono Net, and had a profound influence on our founding and development. As we approach our 15th anniversary, we would like to extent our deepest gratitude and thanks for his tremendous guidance. I recently spoke with Richard, and we are excited to produce this four five-part installment from that discussion. Our third post covers future improvements for self-represented litigants. And of course, read more of Richard’s always fascinating thoughts on his Access to Justice blog.

Standing up for the Self-Represented

The origin story of the Self-Represented Litigants Network got me thinking about we can do today to assist pro se litigants. I asked Richard what changes would have the largest impact and he immediately identified three areas: simplification, triage, and universal access.

Beginning with simplification, Richard pointed out that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure were written in the 1930s (or as he starkly put it – “before computers, but also before photocopiers and ballpoint pens!”). Most view the rules as apolitical or simply a structure to promote efficiency, but they produce definite winners and losers. For example, easy enforcement rules benefit the smaller and always-represented creditor class at the expense of the larger, often pro se debtor class. Thus, the rules have powerful effects on results and rule changes are fundamentally an access to justice project and a fundamental part of the ATJ movement.

The case for better triage is simple: effective resource utilization requires effective resource allocation. As Richard says, we will not have 100% access to justice until there is a system that effectively gets resources to those who need them, especially unrepresented litigants who need counsel or self-help resources. A more rational and efficient system does not mean one that is 100% fair, but rather one that is better than the status quo. We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good – the fact that we cannot create a completely fair triage system is not an impediment to developing better and more equitable systems.

Richard’s final point is a crucial, and oft under-reported, one: the ATJ movement must be about 100% access to justice for all, not about 100% access to justice for a subset of the population. About 20% of Americans qualify for free legal assistance (though only 4% are able to access it), but that leaves a wide swath of people that cannot afford legal representation and must appear pro se. The movement has to help these people as well. Richard stressed that technology can help address this gap. Legal tech is often developed via funding for low-income assistance, but the completed technology can then be deployed to help everyone. There is no marginal cost to extending technology beyond the low-income population to the middle class and, thus, it can be leveraged to make dramatic differences in the lives of millions of Americans who represent themselves in court every year.

So ends this post, but come back next week for the Episode VI of our series which will cover Richard’s thoughts on the successes, failures, and future of the Access to Justice Movement.