It’s obvious, from the moment you walk in, that courthouses do not welcome the public. Unlike most government facilities, there’s rarely a central information desk or consumer-focused window. Although more information is available than a decade ago, in most states the kind of informative pamphlets typically found in a Social Security, motor vehicle registration or IRS office are largely absent. Sometimes there are special lounges, work areas and phones for lawyers, but benches in the hall for everyone else. Court clerks’ offices, where every significant paper must be filed, are with some exceptions, confusing and intimidating. Trying to do business there can seem like a bad dream in which you are lost and need help, only to be faced with perpetually hurrying people, unmarked information windows and long lines of people who don’t speak your language. Rarely will you find a simple sign that says “Non-Lawyer Filing Window” or “Information for the Self-Represented.”

Assuming you get your papers filed and your hearing day arrives, even finding the right courtroom can be exhausting. In many courthouses, hundreds of litigants and lawyers must crowd into a single room every morning while a judge or clerk reads off courtroom assignments in semi-code, with the speed of a tobacco auctioneer. For example, “Smith v. Evans to 17, trailing,” means that case will eventually be heard in Courtroom 17, after some other cases go first. Which raises another big problem for the self-represented. Lawyers can often take advantage of the fact that lots of hearings are scheduled for the same time by scurrying form one courtroom to another, but people who represent themselves must cool their heels while lawyers are served first — sometimes for days.

Lack of respect for the public is also reflected in courtroom procedures. People without lawyers often don’t know exactly where to sit or stand, or how to approach or address the judge. (Check out Nolo’s article Tips for Success in the Courtroom for some helpful hints.) A simple pamphlet with clear instructions on how to accomplish these most basic of tasks would be quick and easy to put together. It has rarely been done.

Most court clerks, lawyers and judges, for whom the current system is familiar and comfortable, don’t even see the many barriers that deny non-lawyers equal access to the legal system. They have been trained to believe that to enter the judicial system, citizens really should pay for a lawyer’s help.

What to Do

Courts must be examined from top to bottom with an eye to eliminating this pervasive and essentially anti-democratic bias. Here are just a few of the things courts need to do:

  • Publish an “access catalog,” designed like a college course catalog, which describes what the court can do for people. It should spell out how much a procedure costs, how long it takes and where to find more information.
  • Like other complicated bureaucracies, every courthouse should have employees — advisors and filing clerks — whose only job is to help ordinary citizens navigate the courts. They could be paid for by filing fees paid by the self-represented.
  • Courts should distribute instructional materials on site and online to help people with routine court procedures. For example, printed forms for a simple divorce, stepparent adoption or guardianship should be available with complete instructions along with the answers to frequently asked questions on the court’s website and in the courthouse. Videotapes that show how the courtroom process works should be readily available at the courthouse.
  • Courthouses should take a look at their designs, with an eye to making them usable by ordinary citizens. Start with simple aids such as clear signs and information booths (which could be staffed by retired lawyers), and move toward providing other services such as work stations, evening court sessions and drop-in childcare for parents who must go to court.
  • To ensure accountability, a non-lawyer board of directors could monitor a courthouse’s treatment of the public. Such a board could also deal with complaints from the public.
  • In larger courthouses, self-help law centers should be routinely available to help self-helpers who need help selecting and completing forms for routine uncontested filings. In some states this has been accomplished (the California Courts Self-Help Center is one of the best), often in Family Law or on a trial basis in a few cities or counties. But unfortunately, this most basic of democratic reforms is not widely available. Money from the filing fees paid by self-represented litigants should be used to pay for these centers rather than being used for general court upkeep.
  • Where public law libraries are available they should be reorganized to best serve consumers as well as lawyers.

This post was co-authored by Jake Warner and Stephen Elias.