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MLK and the pro se movement


MLKjr  No message in Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s powerful Letter from a Birmingham Jail deserves repetition in today’s America more than his reminder that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  As Greg Worthen noted today in Blawg Review 91, that truth has meaning in many aspects of the life of our nation, not merely in the context of race.  In honor of Dr. King, others are writing today about justice and equality in our criminal justice system, and in our politics, education, economy, etc. (see the compilation of such “blawg” postings at the foot of BR91). 

shlep‘s focus, naturally, is justice for all within our civil justice system.  Martin Luther King Day is a great opportunity to remind ourselves and our readers that injustice within our courts is not just ironic, it is inexcusable.  There will be no true “justice for all” until justice is accessible and meaningful to every person in America.  Please allow me to repeat a quote by New Hampshire’s Chief Justice John T. Broderick, Jr., from his Remarks on Access to Justice (February 16, 2006):

ScalesRichPoor “[I]f those in poverty or near poverty do not have meaningful access to the courts, the judicial system will not have fulfilled its constitutional obligation or the fundamental promise of our republic.  Equal justice under law is not achievable if poverty barricades the doors to our courthouses and allows some, but not all of our citizens, a fair and impartial forum to redress their grievances. Neither will it be achieved if we [viz., lawyers and judges] do not assume ownership.”

It is estimated that 80% of the legal needs of the poor and near poor go unmet in this rich nation.  As discussed here, there will never be enough lawyers to serve the needs of every American [indeed, assigning lawyers to “solve” the legal needs of every American would waste dollars better used elsewhere.]  Instead, as we say on our shlep About page:

The best way to ensure that the non-rich also have access to necessary legal and judicial services is to give them the ability and the option to formulate adequate solutions themselves, including acting as pro se litigants in court.

The numbers of self-represented parties is very large and growing in courts across our nation.  We must acknowledge, as a New Hampshire Supreme Court Task Force did in its 2004 Report “Challenge to Justice” (discussed here at f/k/a), that pro se litigants ”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.” 

Although it doesn’t take Dr. King’s courage (in the face of physical threats, imprisonment and hatred) to fight for the right of every American for access to justice, the pro se movement and efforts to help the self-represented are an important continuation of his battle to remove injustice from our society.  Economic inequality is a continuing vestige of racial and ethnic discrimination.  Poverty (and sometimes merely being “un-rich”) has too often, and for far too long, prevented meaningful access to our civil justice system. 

announcerR Ensuring that wealth is no longer the key to the courthouse and that our judicial system fairly serves every American is, therefore, an obligation of all who are responsible for the operation of our legal and judicial system — that means judges and court staff, lawyers, politicians and office-holders, and also voters.   Taking up that obligation honors and helps us achieve Dr. King’s dream that justice and equality for all would become America’s reality.


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