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California Conference on Self-Represented Litigants


The California Conference on Self-Represented Litigants has posted its conference materials, and there is a wealth of valuable information for self-help practitioners.  Topics covered include helping pro-se litigants with mental health problems, helping pro-se litigants with limited english-speaking skills, mediating between pro se litigants, how to start a self-help center, how to communicate more clearly with pro se litigants and much much more. 

Law Libraries sponsoring pro se programs


In 2005, the American Association of Law Libraries held a Joint Roundtable on Service to Pro Se Patrons and Prisoners at their annual meeting.  As a part of that roundtable, they conducted an email survey, in which law libraries with pro se programs described their programs and any associated costs.

I have attached the results of that survey, which includes information from respondents in the following states: California, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.  Note that I updated the original results, deleting any links that no longer worked.

Pro Se Programs in Law Libraries



Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence


Tragically, a staff person was killed on the campus where I work this week. A man she used to be involved with went to her office, shot her to death, and then committed suicide. The victim had taken many steps to protect herself: she had obtained protective orders against the man, she had alerted university police, and she had shown her coworkers his picture and told them to call 911 if they saw him. Still, he found her. (See Seattle Times story.)

Today I read that, ironically or aptly, this is Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence Awareness Week on campus. I started looking for more information and found that different organizations have designated April Sexual Assault Awareness Month. (H. Res. 289, a resolution introduced in the House of Representatives last week, would call it National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month.)

During my search for information about the event, I found a great self-help resource, by the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs: A Survivor’s Guide to Filing a Civil Lawsuit (2004). It’s a 54-page book (in pdf) that explains the whole process — including long ists of pros and cons (p. 4) to help potential plaintiffs make the decision whether to sue. WCSAP has other resources (for the public and for attorneys) on its legal page.

The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (part of CDC) takes a public health approach to the problem. See its Sexual Violence fact sheet, with resources for Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center has links to legal organizations working on the topic here.

legal info vs. legal advice in arizona courts


    It is a mantra used  by staff in courthouses and libraries throughout the English-speaking world: “We can give you legal information but not legal advice.”  E.g., see the Delaware State Court We Can/We Cannot page; John Greacen’s Judicature article (2000); and Iowa’s Guidelines & Instructions for Clerks Who Assist Pro Se Litigants in Iowa’s Courts (2000, 42-pp pdf).  As you might suspect, making the distinction can be quite difficult — frustrating to both court personnel and pro se litigants.

graphClimbS The Arizona Supreme Court decided last year to do something about the problem. Noting that “With the increase of self-represented litigants in Arizona, the issue of how to provide assistance and information to court customers without giving legal advice is becoming more critical and urgent,” it established a Task Force on Legal Advice-Legal Information.  Earlier this month, the Task Force issued:

  • its Final Report (March 2007, 6 pp pdf), which notes in fn. 1 that “Although Arizona Rules of Court define ‘practice of law’ and ‘unauthorized practice of law,’ the Rules do not define ‘legal advice.’”
  • a GUIDE TO COURT CUSTOMER ASSISTANCE: Legal Advice – Legal Information Guidelines for Arizona Court Personnel (March 2007, 67-pp pdf; with a 40-page Glossary of Terms)
  • a Question and Response Handbook (March 2007, 59-pp pdf).
  • Signage [Ed. Note: This is a one-page Welcome / We Can / We Cannot sign, made difficult to read by having the Seal of the Supreme Court appear behind the message.  As I do whenever I see such lists, I wonder if the Task Force argued over “We May” and We Can”.]

The Task Force documents will surely be helpful for court personnel who worry about crossing the info/advise line (and about being sued for UPL).  I am, nonetheless, a bit concerned that the tone is too stingy with useful information.  For example: The Handbook says: “When you are uncertain if you are being asked to give legal advice, please suggest that the one asking the question consult an attorney.”  Telling a pro se litigant to consult an attorney to answer one borderline question will seldom be helpful.  I’d say “bend over backward — or stick out your neck — to help them.”

Also worrisome is the following pair of Questions and Answers in the Handbook:

  1. Q. I can’t afford an attorney. Can you tell me what to do?
    A. Court personnel are not allowed to give legal advice and cannot guess what might be in a court customer’s best interests. Court personnel must remain neutral; there may be a list of local resources of attorneys who will work for a reduced fee or no fee.
  2. Q. Should I get a lawyer?
    A. Parties are not required to have a lawyer to file papers or participate in a court case. Court personnel cannot advise a party whether the party should hire a lawyer, nor may they recommend a specific lawyer. The State Bar of Arizona provides a lawyer referral number at 602-252-4804 or 866-482-9227 and the local County Bar Association may have a referral number. Some courts provide a list of local attorneys and there may be a list of local resources of attorneys who will work for a reduced fee or no fee.

Both answers seem strangely incomplete in a Handbook specifically created to help the unrepresented litigant in Arizona.  As we have said on our Getting Self-Help Help page, Arizona has been a trailblazer in creating online and in-court Self Help Centers, and the State has a network of Self-Help Centers, located in courthouses in at least a dozen counties.  A pro se litigant who complains he or she cannot afford a lawyer or who asks whether a lawyer is needed, ought to — in addition to being told about attorney options — be pointed to the Self-Help Center down the hall (or across the room), which surely has relevant information and assistance.  To respond by only suggesting they seek out a list of lawyers or the Bar Association’s referral program is inexplicable (unless, of course, the Arizona Bar controlled the Task Force).  

  • If you are a practitioner/professional interested in this topic, please note that‘s April Webinar is “on Legal Advice vs. Legal Information.”  Two experts, John Greacen and Judy Meadows will present it on April 30, 2007 from 3-4:30 pm (EST) [I assume they mean EDST]. You need to be an SHS or SRLN member (it’s free and has many other benefits). You can sign up now by emailing anorris [AT] 

Below the fold, I have reproduced the Task Force definitions of “legal advice” and “legal information.”  

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California judges get Benchbook for handling pro se litigants


tight rope   We’ve frequently stressed the important (and often difficult) role that judges have in the process of assuring fair access to justice for the self-represented litigant (e.g., here and there).  Attempting to help the pro se party [called pro pers in some western states] understand law and procedure and effectively present their case, while maintaining neutrality toward all parties to a suit, takes agility and skill, and an appropriate temperament. (see our post earlier this week on Ghostwriting in NJ)  Judges in the California court system were given a great tool for understanding and fulfilling this role with the publication of a 245-page guide called “Handling Cases Involving Self-Represented Litigants: A Benchguide for Judicial Officers.” (CA Administrative Office of the Courts, Center for Families, Children and the Courts, January 2007) (via, where members can access the document)

This benchguide covers the following topics, in addition to providing sample scripts to use in many situations:

  1. Self-represented litigants: Who are they and what do they face when they come to court? [note: 450,000 people use self-help resources annually in California]
  2. Expanding access to the court without compromising neutrality
  3. California law applicable to a judge’s ethical duties in dealing with SRLs
  4. Solutions for evidentiary Challenges
  5. Caseflow management
  6. Courtroom and hearing management  JudgeFriendly 
  7. Settling cases
  8. Special due process considerations
  9. Communication tools
  10. Avoiding unintended bias
  11. Addressing litigant mental health issues in the courtroom
  12. Judicial leadership in access to justice

For a document with similar goals, check out How Can Judges Communicate Effectively With Self-Represented Litigants? (compiled by the American Judicature Society, 64 pp. pdf).  Further helpful resources that we have discussed here at shlep include:

Access for People with Disabilities


I just listened to a podcast from the King County Law Library about disability rights law (Jan. 29, 2007). I’d like to share two things with Shlep readers:

(1) The podcast interviews the judge who was cochair of the committee that produced Ensuring Access for People with Disabilities: A Guide for Courts (Aug. 2006). This is a good resource not just for courts, but for people with disabilities and those who work with or serve them. It has a brief overview of types of disabilities — emphasizing that individuals need to be treated individually (a person with low vision who can read enlarged type needs a different accommodation than another person with low vision). It has practical advice for the inclusion of people with disabilities as parties, witnesses, jurors, attorneys. (The guide was excerpted in the August 2006 issue of the Washington State Bar News.)

(2) These are the sites the podcast’s producers recommend for information on disability rights law:

West/Lexis Access for the Patrons


This might have been mentioned before in earlier posts, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat it. 

By now you are probably aware that lawyers rely on the big legal databases of West and Lexis to do their research.  These provide access to state and federal cases and statutes and important secondary sources.  You are also probably aware that it is pretty expensive to use these resources.  And a couple of pro se patrons have complained that they feel pretty outgunned going up against lawyers who use such databases.

However, you may not be aware that your state or county court law library might have patron access to either West or Lexis.  This can give you good search capability of state and federal statutory and case law.  And its usually free of charge (print outs are another matter).  Certainly, these patron access services do not give you the full capability that West and Lexis are capable of.  But they are pretty darn helpful.

If you need to research an issue, contact your state or county court law library to see if they have patron access to a major database.  That will help level the playing field.

when can you leave children at home alone?


        As often happens, law librarian Laura Orr covered an interesting and important topic last week at her Oregon Legal Research weblog: in her posting “Babysitting and the Law,” she addresses the question, “what age a child must be before he or she can be left home alone,” as well as at what age a child may be a babysitter.  Laura came to a conclusion that seems to be the consensus viewpoint: “[T]here may not be a definitive age for babysitting or for being left alone, but more a matter of training, maturity, and other factors.”   Laura’s posting offers links to Oregon materials on the topic. 

HomeAloneMovie  At ExpertLaw, Aaron Larson says:

“You can check with your state’s Department of Social Services to see if your state has a minimum age for leaving children unsupervised. You are likely to find that there is no specific age, although the common recommendation is that children under twelve be provided with appropriate supervision while their parents are away from home. There may also be a suggestion that an older sibling, even if old enough to be left at home alone, is not necessarily an appropriate babysitter for younger siblings.” 

 There are many good online sources with guidance for parents wondering whether their children are ready to stay home alone and how to make the experience as safe as possible for the children.  For example, see The Public School Parent Network‘s latchkey webpage; Children at Home Alone, a two-page brochure from Prevent Child Abuse New York; and the NSPCC’s Leaving Children at Home Alone.  [Of course, Macaulay Culkin’s experiences in the 1990 movie Home Alone were very funny but not very edifying for parents.]

podium   The most comprehensive and up-to-date resource appears to be the Children Home Alone and Babysitter Age Guidelines from the National Child Care Information Center.  For example, it notes that Illinois and Maryland now have statutes directly addressing the Home Alone issue, summarizes their laws, and links to more information.  After saying that States may have guidelines or recommendations about when a child is considered old enough to care for him/herself or to care for other children, the NCCIC advises that “these guidelines are most often distributed through child protective services and are administered at the county level.”  It then helpfully adds: “Contact Child Welfare Information Gateway at 800-394-3366, and staff there will refer you to your local child protective services agency to learn about age guidelines in your area.”

On the NCCIC Guidelines page, you will also find:

  • National organizations 
  • Examples of child supervision guidelines;
  • Examples of babysitter guidelines;
  • Demographic information about the number of children in self-care; and
  • Information about how to prepare children to stay home alone and to be babysitters.

pennyS  Finally, check out this Nolo article, for tips on Finding a babysitter or nanny.   In addition, you can learn about the American Red Cross babysitter training classes here, and click to see The Super Sitter, a booklet of helpful tips and safety information produced by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.  [update (Feb. 28, 2007): LaborLawTalk Blog has state-by-state information on babysitting laws.]

Getting Wheels


My local paper recently ran a story about some salespeople at a car dealership who fleeced a mentally ill man who came to the dealership with $30,000 in cash. They sold him a truck (worth much less), went to his apartment to steal the rest of his money, and then one bought the truck back at a big profit. Needless to say, they are being prosecuted. How drugs and greed tainted auto dealership, Seattle Times, Feb. 9, 2007.

That’s a horrible story, but what’s link to self-help law? What caught my eye was a sidebar: Legal recourse limited in state for remorseful buyers of autos.

Roadster - little redI thought that, since a car is one of the biggest purchases most people make (second only to a house, and many people never buy a house!), it might be worth listing some resources about buying cars.

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ATJ at ABA and in California


     Thanks to a reminder from the good folks at Self Help Support, I just took another look at the ABA Resource Center on Access to Justice Initiatives, which describes itself as bringing together in one place all of the American Bar Association’s “services to assist bench, bar and legal services leaders in creating effective civil legal services systems – help with structuring systems, analyzing needs, and finding resources.” says it is “a content rich website that provides guidance to state Access to Justice commissions, as well as a links to key materials, links to ATJ programs and headlines.”

ProfPointer Browsing the Center’s Headlines collection, I learned more about the Civil Access to Justice Pilot Project proposed by Gov. Schwarzenegger in California two weeks ago. (see our prior post, Jan. 20, 2007).  It appears to be based on a proposal made by California’s Chief Justice, Ronald George, to the Governor late last year.  The article “Chief justice seeks lawyers for poor in civil cases” (San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 20, 2006) states that the Chief Justice “wants the state to provide lawyers for the poor in civil cases such as child custody disputes and evictions in which people often have to represent themselves,” and explains:

“Chief Justice Ronald George said he will ask Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to test the idea by funding a pilot project in three counties — one small, one medium-size and one large — to provide attorneys for low-income litigants in a limited category of cases, including family law and housing, in which important individual rights are at stake. He didn’t identify the counties.”

The Chronicle article notes that “Congress has limited the federal funding and restricted the types of cases that federally funded lawyers can accept.”  It adds that CJ George “may advocate another three-county pilot project to pay for court interpreters in civil cases that involve basic rights.”   Assemblyman Dave Jones, D-Sacramento, “is working on both issues with George, said the pilot programs would be a first step in addressing ‘a huge justice gap’.”   According to Jones,  California has one lawyer for every 240 people but only one Legal Aid attorney for every 8,737 poor people.  In addition, 7 million Californians could require interpreters if they appeared in court.

resources at Illinois Legal Aid Online


Thanks to a pointer from, I spent some time yesterday at the website Illinois Legal Aid Online and found a few resources I’d like to tell you about.  ILA’s December 2006 eNewsletter describes two useful services:

  • The video “Going to Court on Your Own“, which helps to demystify the court process for pro se litigants.  Because “Going to court on your own can be very confusing and intimidating,” the short instructional video “introduces those who cannot afford an attorney to the court process and instructs viewers on the basics of going to court pro se. The video is intended to help pro se litigants better understand the steps and procedures involved in going to court and familiarize them with the clerk’s office, the court room and the different people they will encounter at the courthouse.”  It was developed and produced by the Young Lawyers Section of the Chicago Bar Association, The Chicago Bar Foundation and Illinois Legal Aid Online [which is a pleasant change from the Illinois State Bar’s campaign to educate the public against using a “lawyer in a box”].
  • The development of Automated Forms Online for Legal Aid and Pro Bono Attorneys is also discussed in the eNewsletter, with links to the materials.  The forms, pleadings and documents can be found on and “Automated forms make it easier and faster to draft documents because the user is presented with only a series of questions to answer using a computer. When all of the questions are answered the user clicks a button, and the completed forms appear on the computer screen and can be saved or printed.” The first forms for attorney users are now live on the websites:  Power of Attorney for Health Care; Power of Attorney for Property; Resignation of Agent for Power of Attorney; and Notice of Revocation of Agent for Power of Attorney. Divorce pleadings, adoptions forms, and eviction defense forms are expected to be online soon.

Note: We discussed document assembly online in a posting last October, where we described the National Public ADO (Automated Documents Online, or NPADO), which can be used by individual consumers or their advocates, and is ”a proven facility for delivering interactive interviews and document generation to self-represented individuals and advocates alike, from a web-connected browser, anywhere and anytime, using industry-standard software” — for free!  For more on automated document services, see yesterday’s posting about LegalZoom.

Finally, I discovered that Illinois Legal Aid has created self-help and informational materials for defendants or respondents (which will be noted at our posting on help for the pro se defendant).  Along with many other general or plaintiff-oriented self-help articles, you’ll find links to the following pieces in the SideBar of this Illinois Legal Aid Online webpage:

  •  How Do I Respond to a Lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Cook County?
     How Do I Settle an Eviction Case with My Landlord? 
     How to Defend Against a Default Judgment If Your Landlord is Trying to Evict You
     How to Get More Time after You Are Ordered to Move Out by a Judge 
     How to Help Defend a Foreclosure Case
     How to Respond to a Petition for Rule to Show Cause
     I am Being Sued in Kane County for an Amount of $10,000 or Less
     What Can I Do If I Am Sued for Mortgage Foreclosure?
     What Can I Do If My Landlord Wants to Evict Me?
     What To Do When You’re Sued by Mistake


Blowing My Own Horn


A couple of weeks ago I saw that a friend had written about my book (Practicing Reference: Thoughts for Librarians and Legal Researchers) on the SIU Law Library’s blog (Law Dawg Blawg). (The friend is Diane Murley, the coauthor of the self-help law bibliography we’ve mentioned here.) That’s nice, I thought. And then I thought: why don’t I tell people about it myself? I’m a blogger too, aren’t I?

I haven’t written before because I try to stick to the mission of the blog, and my book is not on the surface about self-help law. But I am pleased that it’s out — and, come to think of it, parts of it are quite relevant to shlep. So I will go ahead and blow my own horn.

bugle - tiny.JPGThe book is a collection of my columns from Law Library Journal. As it happens, the very first one I wrote, “Golf Buddy Reference Questions” (chapter 8 of the book) was about the policy most law librarians have of not giving legal advice. We don’t tell people what the law is, but help them use the library’s resources (and online resources) to look it up themselves. That policy can be baffling to members of the public. After all, if you call your local public library and ask how tall Mt. McKinley is, the librarian will look it up and tell you 20,320 ft. Why are legal questions different?

Other chapters would be helpful for people who help the public find legal information — not just reference librarians, but also court support staff and others. Chapter 1, “Finding Out What They Want to Know” is a good place to start. And Chapter 4, “On Asking for Help,” discusses reasons why some patrons are reluctant to ask for help and how librarians can help them anyway. Chapter 9, “On Having a Bad Day,” talks about the lives of reference librarians — but it’s applicable to everyone really.

The last third of the book discusses research techniques, challenges, and sources. Anyone who does legal research could find these chapters helpful. Chapter 24, “When Judges Scold Lawyers,” explores cases when judges chew out attorneys for sloppy research or bad writing, and the lessons there are equally applicable to the self-represented. And since we’re all online, I’ll also mention Chapter 22, “Cool Web Sites.”

Most of the columns are available on Law Library Journal‘s website as they were originally published. So why bother with the book? It brings them together in one place, and they’re updated them with some new material.

So, there it is, my little bugle call — ta-daaa! I have a book out!bugle - tiny.JPG

Publishing the Unpublishable


Sorry to have been incommunicado.  Along with the usual holiday chores, I have been writing an article on offshore outsourcing of legal work.  According to some, we may be encountering a lot of U.S. legal work emanating out of India.But that is not the subject of this article. You may have encountered this situation: you are following a case on appeal, either because it’s interesting or it has facts similar to one in which you are involved. Finally, the appellate court renders its opinion…AND it’s unpublished!  You can’t find a copy of it in the reporters or anywhere else.  What the heck is an unpublished opinion?  Find out in “A Librarian’s Guide to Unpublished Judicial Opinions!”

Dogs and the Law


I just came across a site with resources about dog law and less than a week ago I adopted a dog, so this seems like a good time to highlight a few dog-related sites.

Dog Law is a product of Nolo (we can’t stop saying great things about that publisher!), Justia (a site with legal information by a company that does web design and legal marketing), and Little Sheba the Hug Pug (a dog associated with Justia). So far, it appears that Little Sheba hasn’t provided much content but — good news for readers! — Mary Randolph, the author of Nolo’s Every Dog’s Legal Guide, has. (You might have heard of the book as Dog Law, the title title of its first four editions.) The site addresses:

State and Local Regulation – covers information you need to know to own your dog within the law of your locality. This includes information about dog licenses, getting your dog vaccinated, leash laws, pooper-sooper laws and more…

Landlords and Dogs – covers what you need to know to have dog in your apartment, including negotiating a fair lease, dogs and elderly or disabled tenants, the enforceability of no pet clauses, landlord liability for illegal evictions, landlord liability for their tenants’ dogs and more…

Traveling With Your Dog covers dog travel, including airline travel, international travel, travel in the car, travel on public transportation (buses and trains) and more…

Barking Dogs covers dealing with neighbors, animal control and the police, as well as covering local and state laws and more…

Providing for Pets includes strategies for taking care of pets, why you can’t leave money to dogs (and what happens if you try) and more…

Dog Bites – includes information about dog bite prevention, dog owner liability, other potential liable parties, bringing a lawsuit, Dog-Bite Statutes and more…

Dangerous Dogs – includes information about – dangerous dog laws, criminal penalties for owners of dangerous dogs, and breed-specific restrictions.

One thing the site doesn’t appear to have much on (yet) is service animals (a topic someone asked me about yesterday). See Commonly Asked Questions about Service Animals in Places of Business (U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section). Check to see if your own state has something similar. For instance, in my state the Washington State Human Rights Commission has Service Animal Questions. (By the way, the prosecutor’s office here has two service dogs who help with vulnerable witnesses, often children who have been the victims of sexual or physical abuse. See my post at Trial Ad Notes.)
Other resources:

  • Animal advocacy groups often include information about legal developments. For instance, the Humane Society of the United States has sections on federal legislation, state legislation, and its litigation.
  •, from the Internation Institute for Animal Law “provides access to legislation and legal matters pertaining to the rights and welfare of animals. supports information concerning animal cruelty, animal control, laboratory animal welfare, the use of animals in education, product testing and in the laboratory, animal control issues, and general animal welfare.”
  • The Animal Legal Defense Fund has a page of Do-It-Yourself Resources.

Since it’s that time of year, it doesn’t hurt to pass along the Humane Society’s cautions that puppies don’t always make good gifts. See How Much Is that Doggy in the Window?, Dec. 4, 2006. (Our new dog is our gift to ourselves — but we’ve adopted from the same rescue organization before and knew just what we were committing to.)

Happy holidays, and many tail wags to all!

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