Exploring Different Methods of Closing the Justice Gap

By Timur Selimovic, Georgia State University Law Intern


In June 2017, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) released a report entitled The Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-income Americans. In cooperation with the non-partisan and objective research organization at the University of Chicago (NORC), LSC made the following findings in its report:

(1) In 2017, legal aid organizations funded by LSC will receive requests to assist with 1.7 million legal issues from low-income Americans, over half of which will be left partially or entirely unresolved;
(2) This past year, 86% of the civil legal issues reported by low-income Americans were inadequately resolved or entirely unresolved;
(3) Senior citizens, individuals with disabilities, veterans, and residents of rural communities prominently account for the 60 million Americans who live at or below 125% of the Federal Poverty Level; and
(4) Low-income Americans seek professional help for only 20% of the civil legal problems they face, often because they are unaware of available resources and whether their problem is “legal” in nature.

Ms. Linda Klein, current American Bar Association President and senior managing shareholder with the Baker Donelson firm in Atlanta, says the divide between the civil legal needs of low-income Americans and the available resources to meet those needs is now a chasm, and that the disparity presents obvious issues for the American justice system.

Despite the struggle that individual states face in adequately addressing the unmet civil legal needs of low-income individuals, Georgia’s Appalachian and Eastern Judicial Circuits have demonstrated a concerted effort to help low-income residents in their communities access help in family law cases. They have enjoyed considerable success.  Other states, such as Alaska, have made strides to assist pro se individuals with the use of a statewide self-help center and informal trial proceedings.  Finally, in Georgia, alternative dispute resolution offices are also using creative ways to assist courts in resolving a wide variety of disputes.


The Appalachian Judicial Circuit

The Appalachian Judicial Circuit is located in northern Georgia and serves Fannin, Gilmer, and Pickens counties. The circuit’s Family Law Information Center (“FLIC”) was inaugurated in 2008 as a resource for low-income residents seeking assistance with family law issues such as divorce, child custody, legitimation, and contempt, among others.

 Awards and Recognitions

Appalachian Circuit JudgesBetween 2008 and 2014, FLIC assisted 10,143 individuals in the circuit, and in 2014 Chief Superior Court Judge Brenda Weaver of the Appalachian Judicial Circuit received the William B. Spann, Jr. award from the State Bar of Georgia Access to Justice Committee and the Bar’s Pro Bono Project. The award recognizes a pro bono program in Georgia that satisfies previously unmet needs affecting underserved segments of the population.

In August 2010, Richard Zorza, founder of the Self Represented Litigation Network and a writer and thought leader on access to justice issues (https://accesstojustice.net/) evaluated FLIC.  Mr. Zorza’s evaluation concluded that FLIC effectively meets its goal of increasing access to courts for self-represented litigants. Mr. Zorza noted that “time is being saved, and quality [is] being improved in a variety of ways,” and that FLIC staff are skilled in providing litigants with the information and assistance they need without violating the neutrality of the court by serving as advocates.




Services Provided

Ms. Glenna Stone serves as the Staff Attorney and Coordinator of FLIC. Ms. Stone assists self-represented litigants with the completion of forms and provides litigants with basic information regarding the legal process. Litigants may arrange for an in-person appointment with Ms. Stone to discuss the premise of their case, but only from a procedural standpoint, and to ensure their paperwork is accurate prior to filing. Over 80% of litigants who consult FLIC earn $300 or less per week, with only 1% of litigants earning over $700 per week, so free access to an attorney who is knowledgeable about family law issues and who can speak in simple terms is vital to helping litigants resolve their cases.   Litigants who consult FLIC may not be entirely literate and often do not know about available remedies at law. FLIC services are promoted through various channels, including business cards, a detailed website (www.appflic.org/), brochures, print media, DFCS offices, community centers, word of mouth, and referrals from local practicing attorneys.  

Two days each month, each county in the Appalachian Judicial Circuit hosts pro se court, for a total of six monthly pro se court days in the circuit. Usually, both parties in pro se court are self-represented. Pro se court allows the presiding judge to take a more engaged approach during proceedings. The judge will often explain court procedure, conduct fact-finding, review relevant paperwork, and allow each party to consult FLIC staff as the need arises during the case. When pro se court is not in session, Ms. Stone frequently holds office hours for self-represented litigants.


The Importance of Judicial Engagement

Critical to FLIC’s success is engagement from the local judiciary. Chief Judge Brenda Weaver and her law clerk Cami Fowler, Judge John Worcester, also of the Appalachian Judicial Circuit Superior Court, and Judge Keith Galligan of the Appalachian Judicial Circuit Juvenile Court unanimously agree that judges, clerks, and court staff should work with pro se litigants to help them navigate the judicial system. The judges recognize that family law issues can be complicated and stressful. They may take an emotional toll on the parties involved, especially if a party is unemployed or underemployed, suffering from substance abuse issues, responsible for young children or ailing parents, or anxious because they fear an unfavorable outcome in court. The judges believe self-represented litigants may be more willing to fully engage in the judicial process and less inclined to view court as a strictly adversarial setting if judges empathize and acknowledge the taxing effect that litigation can have on parties.


The Eastern Judicial Circuit

The Eastern Judicial Circuit is located in southeastern Georgia and exclusively serves Chatham County.  The primary resource for self-represented litigants in the circuit is the Mediation Center of Savannah, a nonprofit organization established in 1986 that contracts with Chatham County Superior Court and receives funding from the county. The Mediation Center manages the Family Law Resource Center (“FLRC”). Similar to FLIC in the Appalachian Judicial Circuit, FLRC exists to guide and educate self-represented litigants who need assistance with family law issues. The most frequent issues that FLRC assists with include divorce, modification, adult name change, legitimation, contempt, and child support. FLRC is open three days per week, from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., during which self-represented litigants can schedule an appointment with a staff member. During an appointment, a non-attorney staff member will ensure that litigants’ court approved forms are complete and accurate. The litigant will then sign the documents in the presence of a notary public, and will receive detailed instructions regarding what to do next. FLRC can also provide litigants with attorney referrals and hosts educational videos on divorce proceedings. An appointment at FLRC costs $40, although fees may be waived due to mitigating financial circumstances.

Jill CheeksJill Cheeks, the Executive Director of FLRC and the Mediation Center, says FLRC effectively educates litigants about the practical steps involved in pursuing a legal remedy in court. Ms. Cheeks says that many litigants are unaware of how to assert a claim, and are frequently referred to FLRC by court staff who are unable to field the large volume of questions they receive from litigants.



Alternative dispute resolution (ADR), specifically mediation, is frequently used to assist self-represented litigants resolve disputes. The Chatham County Office of Alternative Dispute Resolution refers litigants to the Mediation Center of Savannah, which provides free mediation services to litigants with cases in magistrate, state, and probate court, and provides discounted mediation services to litigants with cases in superior court.

Between 2012 and 2015, 1,899 cases were resolved through mediation, generating savings of $3.3 million from avoiding trial. In 2016, 430 cases were mediated in Chatham County Superior Court. Approximately 100 mediated cases were pro se cases, with 61% of cases reaching agreements. The Mediation Center received 1,406 and 1,388 referrals from superior, magistrate, juvenile, state, and probate judges in 2016 and 2015, respectively.


The Alaska Model: A Fully Mobile Help Center

The Alaska Family Law Self Help Center (“FLSHC”) is the primary resource for Alaska residents seeking information and educational materials regarding issues of family law. Due to the vast geographic area that Alaska occupies and the limitations imposed by difficult terrain and weather, the self-help center exclusively assists self-represented litigants via a toll-free helpline that is staffed 42 hours per week. Stacey Marz, Director of Self-Help Services at the Alaska State Court System, says that FLSHC is able to effectively answer questions from across the state using telephonic services. Calls are fielded one at a time; therefore, FLSHC staff do not face interruptions from multiple litigants competing to ask for information.  Ms. Marz believes that helping people over the phone is generally less taxing for staff than assisting individuals in person and often provides a faster service relative to centers that provide similar services in person. The helpline is staffed by four non-attorney facilitators, who can answer procedural questions from litigants in English, Spanish, and Tagalog, and use interpreters for other non-English languages such as Russian, Korean, Samoan, Hmong, and Yup’ik. With proper training and attorney oversight, Stacey Marz considers non-attorneys to be excellent candidates for staffing help centers. The most important attributes are the abilities to provide excellent customer service and understand the distinction between providing legal information – which is permitted – and legal advice, which is prohibited. The staff facilitators are incredibly careful about not advising customers, but instead provide an abundance of education and information about their options regarding procedures and forms to accomplish their goals.


Civil Rule 16.2

In 2015, the Alaska Supreme Court adopted Civil Rule 16.2, which provides for informal trials in domestic relations disputes. According to the rule, an informal trial is an alternative trial procedure. If both parties consent to an informal trial, the formal rules of evidence are suspended, parties are not allowed to cross-examine each other, and in most cases the only witnesses will be the parties. The judge asks all the questions of the witnesses and solicits topics or questions from the parties about which to inquire. Parties can introduce all evidence they think is important and the judge determines the appropriate weight to afford the evidence. Finally, no objections are permitted. Provided that self-represented litigants – especially those who do not speak English fluently – are unfamiliar with rules of civil procedure and evidence, informal trials allow judges to relax or suspend certain rules in the interest of achieving a swifter resolution. In 2018, the Alaska Supreme Court will evaluate the informal trial process.


SRLN Report on Remote Service Delivery

In 2016, the Self-Represented Litigation Network released a resource guide entitled Serving Self Represented Litigants Remotely.  Eight state-level and county-level programs contributed to the guide, including Alaska.  The resource guide concluded that remote services delivery is effective and efficient, cost-effective, potentially better than in-person services, and a powerful catalyst for developing provider networks to better serve the public. According to the guide, remote service delivery – namely, providing substantive procedural information – is a valuable method by which to assist self-represented litigants and should be an integral tool to judicial districts nationwide, particularly those located in rural settings.

In April 2017, Alaska (along with Hawaii) was announced as a new pilot site for increased development of its legal services in partnership with Microsoft and Pro Net.
See: http://www.lsc.gov/media-center/press-releases/2017/legal-services-corporation-announces-pilot-states-innovative


Tracy JohnsonTracy Johnson, current Executive Director of the Georgia Office of Dispute Resolution and previous director of the ADR program in Georgia’s Sixth Judicial Administrative District, which serves several rural counties, says that ADR is a powerful tool for increasing meaningful access to justice for litigants. Ms. Johnson says that while 20 years ago attorneys were highly skeptical of mediation as a method of legal recourse, many attorneys now earn fees from mediating cases between pro se litigants and have realized that earning fees and closing the justice gap can be complementary endeavors. Relative to litigation, ADR is informal, which can potentially promote more efficient outcomes. Mediation gives litigants the opportunity to actually be heard, Ms. Johnson says. And even if litigants do not come to an immediate solution during mediation, many litigants feel as though their experience in mediation was more satisfying relative to pursuing a remedy in court.

Judge Jerry Wood, formerly the Chief Magistrate Judge in Floyd County, Georgia, and currently the Program Director of the Fulton County Alternative Dispute Resolution Office said the main challenge when working with self-represented litigants during his tenure as judge was to educate the parties on court procedure without providing legal advice, so that litigants felt comfortable making informed decisions about their case.  The Fulton County ADR office has used mediation to assist self-represented litigants in a wider variety of cases than family law matters.  Nevertheless, mediation as a means of closing the justice gap is not without its challenges.  Judge Wood raises a common question regarding access to justice in the context of mediation by way of a hypothetical: suppose a dispute arises between a landlord and a tenant. The landlord has allegedly violated a statute. A different statute provides for treble damages, in this case to the tenant. The parties achieve a settlement using mediation, but the tenant is never aware of the treble damages statute. Does the mediator bear responsibility for informing the tenant of the treble damages statute? It’s a question appropriate for deeper discussion—is justice really delivered when a party foregoes a claim simply because they were unaware they had a right to assert it? Alternatively, isn’t it the role of the attorney as an advocate to counsel clients with respect to the claims and defenses available to them in law? There is hardly an easy answer, but Judge Wood thinks that whatever the scenario, where self-represented litigants have ready access to clear, free information about courts, the justice gap begins to narrow.

[1] NORC conducted a survey of approximately 2,000 adults living in households at or below 125% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) using its nationally representative, probability-based AmeriSpeak® Panel. http://www.lsc.gov/media-center/publications/2017-justice-gap-report


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