Academic journal article Vanderbilt Law Review

Help at Your Fingertips: A Twenty-First Century Response to the Pro Se Phenomenon

Academic journal article Vanderbilt Law Review

Help at Your Fingertips: A Twenty-First Century Response to the Pro Se Phenomenon

Article excerpt


In July 2001, Aventis Pharmaceuticals, Inc. fired Susan Hudock, an award-winning sales representative suffering from shingles.1 Angered and frustrated, Ms. Hudock retained an attorney and filed suit against her former employer, alleging that the company violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to make "reasonable accommodations" that would enable her to perform certain job-related functions.2 After incurring over $18,000 in legal fees over two years and with no end in sight, Ms. Hudock decided to take a drastic step: she fired her attorney and proceeded with her case pro se.3

Despite being warned by her former attorney that she would "never survive summary judgment," Ms. Hudock did just that, largely through the aid of legal resources she found on the Internet.4 When her trial finally began in June 2005, Ms. Hudock rose from the sole chair at the plaintiffs table and began her opening statement by telling the jury, "I have to tell you, I'm terrified."5 Nevertheless, she forged ahead with her case, struggling with evidentiary procedures, witness examination, and general trial strategy; her well-represented adversary had no such difficulties.6 Although the jury ultimately found for Aventis, Ms. Hudock remains undeterred.7 She plans to represent herself again on appeal.8

Ms. Hudock's experience has become increasingly common in recent years, with both state and federal courts seeing a marked increase in pro se civil litigation. In the federal district courts, nonprisoner pro se litigants filed over twenty thousand cases in a recent one-year period; the federal appellate courts saw a twentypercent increase in pro se appeals between 1993 and 2004.9 Though the trend shows no signs of abating,10 not all members of the legal community have welcomed it. Both scholarly and practical debates have centered on the appropriate balance between an individual's right to represent himself11 and the need for judicial efficiency.12

In response, courts, state bar associations, and other institutions have developed programs designed to help selfrepresented litigants navigate through their local court systems. For instance, many state courts sponsor programs and clinics that aid pro se litigants with their cases.13 Moreover, several state bars have adopted "unbundling" rules that allow lawyers and law firms to carry out discrete legal tasks, rather than provide full representation, for their clients.14 In recent years, the Internet has also played an increasingly significant role in providing pro se litigants with guidance and access to legal authorities; many jurisdictions, private organizations, and even individuals now make such resources available to anyone able to access the Internet.15

While others have commented on the pro se trend and these various assistance programs in isolation, this Comment presents a comprehensive analysis of the impact of these various efforts on pro se civil litigants and on the civil judicial system as a whole.16 At the same time, it seeks to evaluate whether any of these resources, or some combination thereof, can reconcile the competing values of selfrepresentation and judicial economy. Part II provides background information and data on the right to self-representation as well as the growing popularity of and challenges associated with proceeding pro se. In Part III, the various approaches offered by courts, bar associations, and technological resources to assist pro se litigants will be presented, and the impact of these initiatives on both pro se litigants and the court systems in which they pursue their claims will be analyzed. Part IV proposes a framework for an integrated, Internet-based pro se assistance program and explains why such an approach is best positioned to balance the needs of pro se litigants with the principles of judicial economy and efficiency. Finally, Part V offers conclusions and recommendations on the practical application of pro se assistance programs and the future of pro se representation. …

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