When Judge Richard Posner left the Seventh Circuit he managed to get in a few shots on the way out the door about the shabby way the judiciary treats pro se litigants. Make no mistake, Judge Posner recognized the presence of vexatious cranks among the pro se ranks, but he spoke out against a legal system that’s managed to make access to legal counsel less and less affordable while simultaneously mounting more and more road blocks in front of people who just want a lifeline from the court system.
To help bridge the gap, Judge Posner set up the Posner Center For Justice for Pro Se’s to offer counseling for pro se litigants to give them at least a decent chance in court. The effort highlighted the access to justice crisis in this country in a way that only a football coach clerking for a local court while struggling to beat Army might challenge. Sadly, the Posner Center is no more, and in its demise is another opportunity to recognize the magnitude of the problem.
When Judge Posner took on his latest new job, working for Legalist, one wondered what would happen to the Posner Center. When I perused the website yesterday, my suspicion was confirmed.
The Board of Directors of the Posner Center of Justice for Pro Se’s Nonprofit Corporation dissolved the Posner Center on July 23, 2019.
The stated reason for the Posner Center’s dissolution is that the Center was receiving many more requests for assistance from pro se litigants than it could handle. The mismatch was something on the order of 100 requests for assistance for every Center staff member.
Since the lawyers and non-lawyers of the Posner Center were assisting the pro se litigants free of charge, perhaps it was inevitable that the demand would greatly exceed the supply. Thus, this experiment in assisting pro se litigants with their ongoing court cases has sadly come to an end.
As much as Posner’s effort to bring justice to pro se litigants shed a light, the fact that his foray into this world yielded “100 requests for assistance for every Center staff member” actually goes even further to highlight the problem. And those are just the litigants with enough legal or research savvy to know to reach out to Judge Posner, which one has to assume is a mere fragment of the people out there looking for help.
Litigation Daily’s Jenna Greene reached out to Brian Vukadinovich, who served as the center’s executive director, who branded this statement “self-serving” and “nonsense.”
“Unfortunately there were lawyers involved in the Posner Center who were really not very interested in helping pro se’s but were more interested in having their names connected to the Posner Center for selfish reasons,” he said in an email. “[T]he problem was that most of the lawyers who signed up to be part of the Posner Center weren’t willing to actually help the pro se’s. As executive director I reached out to lawyers on a daily basis and asked them to help pro se’s with their requests for help and almost every one of them would come up with a ridiculous excuse to not provide help.”
Whether the demand was too overwhelming or attorneys weren’t committed enough, while it’s sad to see this organization go, attorneys should take this opportunity to redouble their commitment to funding for the Legal Services Corporation, expanding Pro Bono outreach to litigants who may not know what’s available to them, and supporting “Low Bono” efforts for the ever increasing population of folks who find themselves too well off to be indigent but far too poor to hire legal counsel.
Still, all the improved representation in the world won’t help while the judiciary itself continues to throw obstacles in the way of people trying to represent themselves. Court offices enforcing confusing, contradictory rules and judges refusing to invest the time and effort to understand pro se matters before kicking them out of hand — often on technicalities only trained attorneys would notice.
At the end of the day, the judiciary holds all the cards that really matter. That’s a frightening thought.
Joe Patrice is a senior editor at Above the Law and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Feel free to email any tips, questions, or comments. Follow him on Twitter if you’re interested in law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news. Joe also serves as a Managing Director at RPN Executive Search.
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