Richard Zorza has dedicated his legal career to the needs of self-represented litigants, and for that, he’s one of the Lawyers We Love. He led the creation of the Self-Represented Litigation Network 15 years ago. He wrote a book on designing a judicial system that would actually serve pro se litigants. Anyone who cares about making the justice system work gets his frequent blog posts at accesstojustice.net. Richard is now semi-retired but frequently consults on access issues for courts, the American Bar Association and other legal organs.
I’ve discussed Richard’s work on this blog in the past because it’s so important to the welfare of self-represented litigants. He has coordinated much of the intellectual labor that helps the courts recognize our existence. But he has also kept a keen eye on the work of others, often highlighting key insights that would otherwise get lost in the industry’s focus on efficiency.
Take, for instance, a recent report from the National Center for State Courts, The Landscape of Civil Litigation in State Courts. It’s the first detailed accounting since 1992 of what’s actually happening in state civil courts. Short and sweet relative to its scope, the study nonetheless covers the gamut from the average number of cases on a court’s docket to the average size of judgments to the average duration of a case. There’s a huge amount of data to crunch.
The report also took a peek at the represented status of civil litigants. Which party (plaintiff or defendant) typically appeared with or without a lawyer? What types of cases were involved — debt collection, foreclosure, small claims, torts, etc? What were the success rates for those with and without lawyers? As expected (due to the recession), NCSC’s report found a far higher percentage of self-represented litigants in the nation’s civil courts today than 25 years ago. And due to lack of legal skills and ignorance on basic procedures, they weren’t faring well. No surprises there.
But Richard dug deep into the data and came up with something astounding, facts that could change the way our courts work. It turns out that a self-represented litigant appears in 76% of all non-traffic civil cases. That means the primary user of the civil justice system is a self-represented litigant. What’s more, in over 90% of those cases, there’s a self-represented defendant facing off against a plaintiff’s lawyer. In other words, people who can’t afford a lawyer are being dragged into court by lawyers. They are mesmerized and confused by strange rules and procedures, outmatched by superior legal skills, and robbed of their rights and privileges in broad daylight. It’s absolutely disgraceful, and unjust. And it must change.
As Richard put it:
We now have the data that shows that the one-side-self-represented case is the dominant case situation in US civil state courts and that We Need a Fundamental Rethink of The State Civil Justice System.
Going forward, arguments against reforming the courts to provide greater access to justice will be much more difficult to make. Self-represented litigants can no longer be considered odd or peculiar or rare. Here’s the thing: If pro se litigants are the primary users of the civil justice system, then anyone working to make the courts better — that should be everyone with a law degree — ought to be working to make the courts better for pro se litigants. That’s what Richard Zorza has done for decades.
Had the profession followed the breadcrumbs of his book and designed a civil justice system around the needs of self-represented litigants, we’d have courts that work today. NCSC and the State Justice Institute should be commended for collecting and analyzing the data, but Richard deserves the credit for making it count. You see, it isn’t just the ability to crunch numbers and find interesting bits of data. It’s the perspective you have on access to justice. It’s the questions you ask, the solutions you seek, that move us forward. We owe a debt of gratitude to Richard Zorza for his passionate advocacy on our behalf. You may reach Richard on his blog at accesstojustice.net.