Friday, June 24, 2011

Courts and Kids

Back in October I noted the kick-off meeting for the Supreme Court Children's Commission - Education Committee.  That group and its many components and staff have been working away at the educational challenges faced by foster kids, and I enjoyed an update on that work today; a lot is happening both in Texas and nationally to improve the way these different systems interact with each other so that the kids can be kept safe, but also receive the education they need and are entitled to.  For example, in early November, the federal Department of Education and the Administration for Children and Families are co-hosting an event that will highlight and spur more collaboration between child welfare, education and the courts. 
Here in Texas, Chief Justice Jefferson's 2011 State of the Judiciary address has helped keep me focused on issues of juvenile justice. We memorialized his interest in these topics for the 82nd Legislature on a Children's Commission webpage, and I believe it is safe to say that his interest is starting to catch on with other chief justices around the country, as he enjoys the bully pulpit of chairing the Conference of Chief Justices this year.

One result of his interest is an upcoming event that readers will want to note. On the morning of July 19th, Chief Justice Jefferson and Judge Jeanne Meurer will host an event in the Supreme Court Courtroom, the presentation of a massive new report, by the Council of State Governments Justice Center. The report uses data only available in Texas to track the school disciplinary treatment of almost 1 million Texas middle school children, delving deeper into the relationships between suspension, expulsion, and involvement in the juvenile justice system. If you can't attend in person, as with the Court's oral arguments you can view a webcast, courtesy of St. Mary's University School of Law

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Unrepresented

The unrepresented, or self represented as we perhaps mis-name them, are a topic of high interest, as previously mentioned.  I was recently asked what we know about the volume of people in the courts attempting to handle their own legal problems (which all of us lawyers think is a very bad idea). Here is some of what I learned. 

We do not (yet) have good systemic data on the extent of pro se/self represented litigation in Texas, and the National Center for State Courts advises that no one else has it either (which still surprised me, as many states have more consolidated case management systems capable of gathering better data than we get); what NCSC says is “lots of anecdotal evidence but no consistent data.” Richard Zorza, a national consultant on these issues, agrees that the data is chaotic. In lieu of better data, he has previously cited the following information in the 2009 Future Trends in State Courts report that NCSC produces (see

It is no surprise that the economic crisis is dramatically impacting both the numbers and proportion of self-represented litigants. In a 2009 survey conducted by the Self-Represented Litigation Network, between 50 and 60 percent of judges reported higher caseloads and a higher percentage of the self-represented as a result of the crisis (with many reporting both). Only 27 percent reported no impact, and many of those were criminal-court judges (see figure below). Some courts and judges are also seeing many more middle-class litigants coming to court without lawyers. Some of these litigants are reported to have higher expectations of how they will be treated and to be more prone to frustration with the situation and how courts are managing it.
Last week a judge estimated that pro se divorces run about 45% of all his divorce filings. I have recent data point from another Texas county that squarely supports this estimate.  So, applying that 45% estimate as a statewide assumption for that case type, there were approximately 61,000 pro se divorces in 2010.  If you make the same 45% assumption for all other family law matters, add another 112,000 to that.  (And by the way, divorces in Texas are declining per capita over the last 20 years, a 7% increase in filings over that time, despite 43% population growth.)

We do have one area of very good statewide data on pro se litigation, in small claims courts, which are pro se by definition. Filings are down some over time, and certainly down per capita.  Evictions may be a countervailing trend but we don’t have good data on pro se representation.  My counterparts in California advise that 90% of tenants go unrepresented in their courts.