The number of low- and moderate-income litigants representing themselves in civil legal matters has increased in recent decades. And there remains a significant gap between these individuals’ legal needs and the civil legal assistance system’s ability to fulfill them—the “justice gap.”
Self-representation, or pro se, features prominently in a wide range of civil legal cases, including but not limited to domestic violence, foreclosures, landlord-tenant disputes, bankruptcy, and consumer issues. Pro se litigants face many challenges in their quest to reach fair resolutions to civil disputes.
The following statistics illustrate the increase in self-representation over the last several decades and the need for additional funding for civil legal aid programs to ensure efficient, effective delivery of legal services to those who need them.
Inequities in civil legal assistance
$284: The average hourly billing rate for attorneys in the United States.
1-to-6,415: The ratio of free legal services attorneys available to the number of low-income Americans who need one.
$15.8 million: The amount of money cut from the Legal Services Corporation’s fiscal year 2011 budget, reducing funds for civil legal aid to low-income Americans. The LSC is a private nonprofit corporation funded by Congress to provide grants to civil legal aid programs.
The growth of self-representation
88 percent: The percentage of domestic relations cases involving self-represented litigants in Arizona in 1991, an increase from 47 percent in 1985 and 24 percent in 1980. These data are based on the first comprehensive study of self-represented litigants performed by Bruce Sales, Connie Beck, and Richard Haan in 1991, and they indicate trends in other parts of the country.
More than 60 percent: The number of legal needs involving housing, personal, or economic injuries that were either ignored or addressed outside the legal system, based on the 1994 Legal Needs Study commissioned by the American Bar Association.
57 percent: The number of litigants that chose to represent themselves because they could not afford a lawyer, based on a 1996 nationwide study conducted by the University of Maryland Law School.
78 percent: The number of self-represented litigants who explained their choice based on the belief that “it takes too long for the courts to do the job,” based on a 1998 ABA study. Free legal services providers often help individuals avoid unnecessarily long court processes by advising them if they have legitimate cases and/or helping them to resolve their disputes without going to court.
65 percent: The number of pro se litigants in Florida district courts reporting in 2002 that the costs of hiring legal assistance were prohibitive.
50 percent: The number of pro se litigants in Utah district courts reporting in 2002 that the costs of hiring legal assistance were prohibitive.
60 percent: The number of judges in a 2009 nationwide study who reported an increase in cases with self-represented litigants as a result of the recent economic crisis.
The “justice gap”
63 million: The number of low-income Americans qualifying for free legal help in 2010. One-third of these are children.
71 percent: The percentage of legal needs of low-income households that are not met by the court system. The figure is also high for moderate-income households at 61 percent.
Less than 20 percent: The number of low-income Americans’ legal needs that are being met according to a 2009 study conducted by the LSC.
90 percent: The number of litigants in numerous high-volume city courts who don’t have access to a lawyer.
The state of civil legal assistance
136: The current number of nonprofit civil legal aid programs funded by the LSC out of a total of approximately 500 independent, staff-based service providers.
1 million: The approximate number of cases closed by LSC-funded civil legal aid programs in 2010, affecting nearly 2.3 million people.
$104 million: The additional reduction to the LSC’s fiscal year 2012 budget proposed by the House Appropriations Committee in July 2011, a scenario that would roll back LSC funding to its lowest level in 12 years.
235,000: The estimated number of low-income Americans eligible for civil legal assistance at LSC-funded programs that would be turned away if the Appropriations Committee’s proposal were enacted.
David Liu is an editorial intern at the Center for American Progress.
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