Don’t you just hate it when something is called something it’s not, like the PATRIOT Act, a gentleman’s club, Rachel Dolezal, or the Self Represented Litigation Network (SRLN)? Turns out there’s a word for that: misnomer. I don’t make a habit of calling out folks in the industry, but all of us working in the interests of pro se litigants need to do better.
Let me say off the bat that I’ve been a fan of SRLN’s founder, Richard Zorza, like forever. I’m still a fan. He’s a lifelong champion of reforming the courts to make them more accessible to self represented litigants, and in fact, SRLN takes its mission from his legacy. I’ve written about Richard and SRLN in this space before. They’ve done some good work over the last 15 years, including loads of research on access to justice barriers, a training program for public librarians, and a website for legal technicians and paralegals at selfhelfsupport.org. We want to encourage these kinds of efforts because pro se litigants need all the allies we can get.
As a community of pro se litigants, we thought we might have something to offer SRLN in their efforts to move courts toward better serving folks like us. We reached out to them early this year but got no response. And then I joined the network personally a month ago after they’d reviewed my application. I was enrolled in a couple of working groups, did a couple conference calls, offered some feedback on a beta website project… the stuff you do when you start working with a nonprofit. And then I reached out to the leadership to see how we could best contribute. Here’s what I got back:
As you know, we are in the middle of our web re-design project, so I am suspending new contact calls until that is complete with our hard launch the week of September 21. I apologize for any inconvenience this might cause, but we really are in an all-hands-on-deck mode. Also, please note that you had been joined to a working group in error, so have been removed at this time. When we speak in September, we can explore the right fit for you. I think when you contact us originally, what you wanted was access to selfhelpsupport.org, as working groups are invitation only groups. The new page is going to allow us to open that up considerably, but to be fair to all, I need have you come in under the new process. I am sure you understand. In the meantime, please let me know if you do not have credentials for selfhelpsupport, which our materials are currently located, and we will get those approved. I am cc’ing Michael who can handle that approval.
Please send me an e-mail the week of September 28 when things will have settled down, and we can set a time to talk.
Thanks in advance for your understanding,
Katherine [Alteneder, SRLN’s current coordinator]
Here’s the TL;DR version: I don’t know who let you in but you need to be over there with the people who help the people without lawyers and if you still need help after that why don’t you write me back in a couple months and we’ll see what else we can do for you but you are not — repeat NOT — a part of our network.
Of course, my first response was to check whether I had stolen something. But seriously, just wow. Remember, my inquiry was an effort to discover how we could help them. Take, for instance, their (ahem) surprising claim that 1 in 10 Americans — some 32 million people — are engaged at any time in a civil case outside traffic court. The numbers just aren’t that big. We’ve counted them, cross-checked the data, and let’s just say the accuracy on that has consequences for a business such as ours. We could have helped them with a more realistic estimate.
We’re both seeking meaningful access to justice for self represented litigants. We’re on the same side here. Or maybe we’re not. Perhaps only one of us is actually working in the interests of pro se litigants, and the other is the Rachel Dolezal of self represented litigation. I’m reminded of the six houses built by the Red Cross with half a billion dollars in relief funding and I’m not altogether sure I feel SRLN’s impact when I go to court.
Let’s cut to the chase. If our interest in the network could be so easily misread, it’s no wonder pro se litigants are still in such dire straits after 15 years of SRLN’s work. To be sure, we at BAIT can’t claim to have removed the barriers to self representation either. But we’re not 15 years old with the resources of SRLN.
SRLN “is a network of judges, court managers, attorneys, librarians, scholars, technologists, and community leaders that believe everyone deserves access to justice…” Notice who’s missing? D’ya think they could be more effective by working with pro se litigants? Instead, they’re working to get courts and lawyers to solve a problem they may not fully understand, namely the actual experience of pro se litigants in the courts.
Ok, rant’s over. I’m not looking for a different outcome here, so let’s not bombard anybody with angry messages. Really, please, let’s not. Clearly the network is not prepared to engage real pro se litigants outside the context of a research survey. Or maybe they’ve learned all they can from us and don’t need any more input. It’s too bad in either case, but luckily they aren’t the only means of reforming the courts. In the long run, we as pro se litigants will do that with our cases.
So let’s all wish SRLN the best in their endeavors, truly. But with all due respect, I won’t be checking for Katherine at the end of September.
Share in the comments below if you know a nonprofit group that’s working hard for the interests of self represented litigants.