Visitors to our website will know that many individuals in BC have difficulty affording a lawyer and end up representing themselves in Court when they have a legal dispute. A2JBC supports various innovations that seek to reduce the barriers that prevent individuals from accessing counsel, but some ideas, like the unbundling initiative, are also aimed at providing limited, affordable services to help self-represented litigants navigate the system on their own.
These “self-help” services can be an effective solution to those dealing with at least simple legal problems. In an essay published in the Yale Law Journal, Professor Jeanne Charn of Harvard Law School looked at the evidence comparing outcomes for people facing civil legal disputes when they represent themselves, and when they are represented by lawyers. The evidence showed that for two types of simple disputes—proceedings to obtain unemployment insurance benefits and eviction cases in housing court—there was no noticeable difference in outcomes between represented and self-represented litigants. However, for more complex disputes, those individuals who had a lawyers did tend to receive more favourable outcomes.
Professor Charn believes these findings should be celebrated because they indicate that self-help legal services should not just be a stop-gap measure, but part of the end goal of any access to justice strategy. She advocates in favour of an evidence-based, mixed model for delivering legal services, in part, she argues, because lawyers (and the adversarial system generally) may be a poor fit for some types of disputes, such as custody matters. Professor Charn says that when people have a choice between lawyers and informal advisors, they prefer to rely on informal advisors—at least at the outset of a legal problem and in certain contexts. She concludes that providing properly supported self-help services, along with the services of lawyers when needed, may result in increased public confidence in the system and increased willingness to assert legal entitlements.
What role do you think self-help legal services should play in removing access to justice barriers? If you have any self-help innovation stories please share them with us here.