New Hampshire Bar Journal
2005 Winter, 16.
Challenge to Justice: A Report on Self-Represented Litigants in NH Courts
New Hampshire Bar Journal Winter 2005 Volume 45, Number 4 Challenge to Justice: A Report on Self-Represented Litigants in NH Courts By Hon. James E. Duggan, Chair The report on NH Supreme Court Task Force on Self-Represented Litigants was presented to the Supreme Court in January 2004. The following is the introduction, recommendations and conclusion of the Task Force, chaired by Hon. James E. Duggan, Associate Justice of the NH Supreme Court.
In recent years, New Hampshire courts have experienced a dramatic increase in the number of citizens who choose to represent themselves. This population of self-represented or pro se litigants represents a cross-section of our community: a mother trying to collect child support, tenants upset with landlords, neighbors disputing a property line, a contractor with an unpaid bill, couples tangled in divorce, a family settling the estate of a loved one. They come into their court, on their own, with a conflict or change in their lives, and they expect a resolution. That is their constitutional right.
Access to justice is an abiding principle of our system of justice and the doors of our courthouses are open to everyone, whether represented by a lawyer or not. It follows that the obligation of the court system is to see to it that justice is as fair and efficient as it can be for those who arrive on their own. As the number of these pro se litigants continues to grow, and the strain on the court system increases, meeting that constitutional guarantee of justice for all will require changes, some of which we have proposed here.
Identifying the Issues
Our intent is not to decrease the number of persons who come to our courthouses without a lawyer, or to erect barriers that discourage them. We do believe it is preferable that litigants have the assistance of a lawyer, and we strongly recommend increased resources for low-cost legal assistance. At the same time, we recognize that pro se litigants are a permanent and growing part of our justice system and we have an obligation to determine what level of assistance we can provide to them. By providing help, we may be able to reduce the number of times these litigants must come to court and thus reduce the stress on the court system.
Self-represented litigants are either unwilling or unable to pay a lawyer. A sample of self-represented litigants in New Hampshire showed that most of them were in court on their own because they could not afford to hire or continue to pay a lawyer. In today's "self-help" society, many people believe they can handle simple legal matters themselves. More often than not, however, it quickly becomes clear that these pro se litigants lack the...