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DELAWARE COURTS: FAIRNESS FOR ALL TASK FORCE ISSUES REPORT

   “AMERICA’s courts are built on a system of rules and procedures that assume that almost everyone who comes to court has a lawyer. Unfortunately, the reality is quite different. An increasing number of civil cases go forward without lawyers.
   Litigants who cannot afford a lawyer, and either do not qualify or are unable to have a lawyer assigned to them because of dwindling budgets, are on their own – pro se. . . . As the economy has worsened, the ranks of the self-represented poor have expanded.
    . . . Unrepresented liti-gants now also include many in the middle class and small-business owners who unexpectedly find themselves in distress and without sufficient resources to pay for the legal assistance
they need.”

Excerpt from an editorial entitled “A Nation of Do-It-Yourself Lawyers,”
by New Hampshire Chief Justice John T. Broderick, Jr., and California Chief Justice Ronald M. George, New York Times, January 1, 2010


In Delaware, as throughout the nation, more and more individuals in civil cases are representing themselves without the assistance of an attorney. A report on this issue in Delaware was submitted to the Delaware Supreme Court in September 2009 by its Delaware Courts: Fairness for All Task Force. The report describes the challenges facing self-represented litigants, the court system, and others, and makes recommendations for addressing these challenges, as well as furthering procedural fairness, and the public’s perception of such fairness, in the courts. The Task Force based its findings and recommendations on the results of surveys and public hearings conducted statewide.

Among the Report’s recommendations is the creation of a Bench Bar Committee to consider whether to clarify rules permitting attorneys to provide limited services to clients in litigation so that those who could otherwise not afford an attorney can obtain help with certain aspects of their cases. Another recommendation is to form a judicial committee on self-represented litigants. Chief Justice Myron T. Steele has appointed members to both committees and they are slated to begin meeting in the near future.

Other recommendations include the development of interactive court forms for court web sites. These forms ask litigants questions and place their responses into the official form to be filed with the court, making the process simpler for self-represented litigants. The Administrative Office of the Courts is currently working with the Justice of the Peace Court to automate the Court’s complaint form for summary possession cases. Some of the other recommenda-tions include creating a video on preparing for court and providing officially sanctioned guidelines for court staff in distinguishing legal information from legal advice, as well as training on those guidelines. Preliminary work on these recommendations has also begun.

The work of the Delaware Courts: Fairness for All Task Force is especially timely, given the rising number of litigants who are self-represented, due to the current economic situation. Delaware Courts, like other state courts, are renewing their focus on ensuring access to justice and fairness for all those using court services.

Co-chaired by Chief Magistrate Alan G. Davis and State Court Administrator Patricia W. Griffin, the Delaware Courts: Fairness for All Task Force’s membership includes representatives from the Judicial, Legislative, and Executive branches, as well as others familiar with the court system and issues faced by self-represented litigants.

A copy of the report can be obtained from the Judicial Branch web site.

For further information contact Christine Sudell by e-mail at chris.sudell@state.de.us or by phone at 302-255-0098.

 

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