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8 Tips for Assisting Self-Represented Litigants

Christina Wright, June 24th, 2024

Working in the Kane County Eviction Mediation Program for the past three years, I have seen firsthand the challenges self-represented litigants may face. I have also learned a lot by reading RSI’s research on related topics, such as the ODR Party Engagement (OPEN) Project. Recently, I had a chance to speak to members of the Illinois Supreme Court Access to Justice Court Navigator Network at the Kane County Law Library in Geneva, Illinois, about tips I’ve found useful in supporting these litigants. I am sharing them below with the hope that they will be useful to others.

Photo by Edmond Dantes via Pexels

1. Speak and write in plain English.

For native speakers as well as those for whom it is a second language, English can be a difficult language to master. Many self-represented litigants don’t have the language skills to understand the legalese that is often used in the courtroom. Thus, it is important that all court-related communications be written in plain English. Additionally, court-connected mediation programs and other settings involving self-represented litigants should have a staff member accessible to answer questions regarding court/program handouts and policies.

2. Provide translation.

Any paperwork should be readily available in commonly used languages other than English. In Kane County, our primary need is Spanish, but that will vary by jurisdiction. Translation services should also be provided as needed.

3. Be clear that outcomes are not predictable.

To avoid making promises you can’t keep, be sure to use language that does not promise a particular outcome. For instance, one could say “You may apply for a court fee waiver,” rather than “You can get your court fees waived.” This important distinction can prevent confusion down the line as the individual continues to navigate the court/program.

4. Be flexible with scheduling.

Courts/programs can be difficult to access for those who live near or below the poverty line and/or who have inflexible work schedules. For self-represented litigants with little or no income, it may be impossible to physically attend court or afford the devices necessary to attend court virtually. Buses, ride-hailing services and even bicycles cost money and can be time-consuming to use. Being flexible with scheduling allows participants a greater chance of attending, and without the extra burden of costs associated with travel, childcare, calling off work, etc.

5. Be knowledgeable about available resources.

Inability to use technology is another hurdle. Whether it be because the individual lacks the skills or the finances to utilize technology, online dispute resolution (ODR) programs and virtual court may only be an option with extra assistance from the court/program. Extra assistance may come in the form of lending a device, walking the self-represented litigant through connection issues, or referring them to another agency that can help get them connected. Libraries are a great resource for technology assistance and connection.

6. Keep an open mind.

Don’t assume you know anything about any particular self-represented litigant’s life, capabilities, technology access, education, finances, etc. What may seem simple or common to you may not even be an option for them. With that said, self-represented litigants come from all different walks of life, so it is even more important not to assume they are all alike and thus all have the same needs.

7. Be persistent when reaching out to parties.

How do you reach a self-represented litigant? Keep trying! The Kane County Eviction Mediation Program uses phone, text, email and in-person conversations to gather information and assist self-represented litigants face their legal challenges. Everyone has their own preferred communication method, so it takes different forms of communication to reach different people. Attempt contact frequently and through a variety of methods if you really want to reach the individual.

8. Be trustworthy.

Finally, the OPEN Project found that trust can be a big obstacle for courts. OPEN focus group participants were wary of the communications they reviewed. Thus, it is important that all court communications look official and provide solid contact information in case the self-represented litigant needs to ask questions or contact the court/program for other reasons.

Although there can be challenges when working with self-represented litigants, the individual parties can benefit greatly from the support. Mediation and similar programs can provide clarity, control, support, legal assistance, financial resources, housing counseling and other resources to self-represented litigants. They can decrease the amount of time a case remains in court (a benefit to everyone involved) and prevent unnecessary wage losses. Self-represented litigants may need regular reinforcement and assurance, but by providing this service we increase their access to justice.

New, Free IPV Screening Tool Can Help Ensure that Mediation is Safe and Fair

Rachel Feinstein, June 14th, 2023

Screening for interpersonal violence and abuse (IPV/A) is an essential step for making family mediation safer and more fair for all parties. Unfortunately, in “Joint Session or Caucus? Factors Related to How the Initial Mediation Session Begins,” Roselle Wissler and Art Hinshaw found that only 11% of surveyed family mediators screened for IPV, or had access to the screening results, prior to mediation (see footnote 85). A new tool, the MASIC-S, might change that. The MASIC-S is available free at ODR.com for all mediators. It is an abbreviated version of the Mediator’s Assessment of Safety Issues and Concerns (MASIC), which was developed in 2010 and is widely referenced for use in family mediation.

Screenshot of the webpage for MASIC-S, a new tool to screen for interpersonal violence and abuse.
MASIC-S is an abbreviated version of the Mediator’s Assessment of Safety Issues and Concerns (MASIC). It is available for free at ODR.com (screenshot from website above) for all mediators.

RSI is particularly interested in this new tool in light of our 2018 project, supported by the Family and Interpersonal Resilience and Safety Transformation Fund, that studied IPV screening tools, surveyed experts in IPV dynamics (as well as lawyers, judges and mediators) on best and actual practices, and convened those experts to explore how to close that gap. The research led to an extensive report outlining RSI’s proposed solution and the steps to actualize it.

The questions in the MASIC-S focus on abuse in past or current relationships. Many of the questions have been validated, meaning that they accurately identify severe and concerning degrees of abuse, which the screening tool aims to assess. Mediators can screen parties during intake by privately administering the MASIC-S questionnaire in person or through videoconferencing. After each party has completed the questionnaire, the mediator will be prompted to consider specific questions regarding whether or not mediation is appropriate for the case, and if so, what accommodations might be necessary for a safe and voluntary process.

The Comprehensive Guidance provides detailed instructions for administering the MASIC-S, as well as directions to follow based on a party’s score. For example, if a party receives a score of 3 or higher, the guide recommends refraining from mediating jointly in-person; however, online mediation may still be a reasonable option. The Comprehensive Guidance even provides scripts to follow, such as what a mediator can say to safely terminate mediation without blaming either party or endangering a survivor.

The MASIC-S is also designed to protect confidentiality of the parties. For example, mediators do not record any identifying information that could connect responses to a particular person, and the results are not shared with the other party. Additionally, the responses are not stored online; mediators can instead download a PDF of the responses if they want a record of them. Using this abbreviated screening tool at intake can help to ensure mediation is appropriate for the parties and necessary accommodations are made for a safe and just process.

What Makes Parties Trust a Mediator? RSI Hopes to Find Out, With Help From Grant

Jennifer Shack, February 28th, 2023

For mediation to be successful, it is considered essential that the involved parties trust the mediator. Yet little research has been done to determine whether any particular mediator behaviors help to engender party trust. RSI intends to change that. With a generous grant from the Rackham Foundation, we are undertaking an exploration of the intersection between mediator behaviors and party trust. 

Two Potential Phases

During this exploration, we will observe mediations, code mediator behaviors, survey parties before and after mediation, interview mediators and collect outcome data. The purpose will be to test the mediator behavior codes, data collection instruments, research protocols and hypotheses to determine whether research of this type can provide useful information.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio via Pexels
Support from the Rackham Foundation will allow RSI to examine the intersection between mediator behaviors and party trust.

If we find that our research is fruitful, RSI will undertake a full research project to determine which, if any, mediator behaviors impact party ratings of trust in the mediator and other procedural justice components, and whether mediation resulted in agreement, among other factors. Our ultimate goal is to provide mediators and trainers with concrete information about behaviors that are more likely to engender party trust in the mediator and result in a satisfying, successful mediation. This project will lay the foundation for work toward that goal.  

Seeking Site for Observation

We plan to observe a limited number of mediations at two sites with mediators with different training and backgrounds. We have identified one but are seeking another. If you are interested, please contact RSI Director of Research Jennifer Shack.

We are grateful to the Rackham Foundation and to Ava Abramowitz, who has championed this research, for this opportunity. She and her research partner Ken Webb have developed and tested the coding scheme we will be using. Stay tuned!

RSI Presents “Building Your Court’s Civil ADR Program” Workshop Series

Just Court ADR, February 21st, 2020

Resolution Systems Institute is pleased to share a three-part series entitled Building Your Court’s Civil ADR Program. These three videos are from an October 2019 training RSI’s Executive Director Susan Yates presented in New Mexico. RSI thanks the Judicial Branch of New Mexico for hosting the seminar and making these videos available.   

About the Three Video Sessions:

Session 1: Design Your Program

This session addresses the importance of seeking input and how to develop support for the project. Susan discusses how to decide on which ADR process to use by addressing topics such as whether participation should be mandatory and whether the program should focus on any particular types of cases. Susan also discusses issues from budgeting to how to serve self-represented litigants.

Session 2: Work with the Neutrals in Your Program

This session covers questions from how to find neutrals to how to remove them from your program. Topics include setting neutral qualifications, picking neutrals, training neutrals and selecting neutrals for particular cases. The session also covers neutral ethics, retaining neutrals, continuing education and designing a complaint process. Susan discusses how to decide how much to pay neutrals and the costs and benefits of paid vs. volunteer neutrals.

Session 3: Administer, Track, Evaluate and Promote Your Program

This session focuses on how to manage a court program and ensure it provides quality services. This requires identifying the person who will wake up every morning with the goal of making the program work; figuring out how to collect the data needed to monitor the program and present it to decision-makers; arranging for evaluation of the program at appropriate intervals; and ensuring stakeholders continue to value the program.

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