Omaha Courts and the State Administrative Office Partner to Better Assist Self-Represented Litigants

Omaha Courts and the State Administrative Office Partner to Better Assist Self-Represented Litigants

Friday, July 26, 2019

The Omaha courts and the Nebraska Administrative Office of the Courts and Probation have been awarded a $55,000 technical assistance grant to assess efforts in providing court users with meaningful access to the judicial process in the State of Nebraska. The focus of the study, funded by the State Justice Institute, is to evaluate the effectiveness of the assistance provided for Douglas County domestic relations cases. Domestic relations, or family law, cases represent the highest percentage of cases where litigants represent themselves. The study will include a review of divorce, paternity, custody, child support, and modifications cases.

The National Center for State Courts will conduct the study and will produce a recommended plan for improving services. A plan for improvement, based on the recommendations, will then be piloted within Douglas County and later customized to allow statewide implementation.

The growing number of self-represented litigants in Nebraska has become a critical concern for court, county, and state officials. Anecdotal evidence from judges and court staff suggests that the problem is persistent and continues to negatively affect those who attempt to navigate the court system without an attorney. Additionally, the increasing number of self-represented litigants threatens to compromise the efficiency of the court system and presents other problems not yet completely understood.

In 2018, a review of Douglas County domestic relations cases suggested that 52% of domestic relations cases involve a self-represented litigant. Douglas County files 36% of all Nebraska domestic relations cases.

The study is seeking to better understand the circumstances that lead to repeated rescheduling or dismissal and reinstatement of cases involving self-represented litigants. Repeat rescheduling of cases causes needless delays and results in frustration for those who attempt to navigate the court system without an attorney, as well as litigants represented by counsel, and court staff.

Despite the assistance provided through state and community agencies, the courts are experiencing a high dismissal and subsequent reinstatement rate of cases involving self-represented litigants. Areas of consideration include: updated or new court rules; new instructions/forms; signs; and simplified court processes. 

Experience and research in many states confirm a well-run delivery system for self-represented litigant services provides the following benefits:

  • Judges and court staff can do their jobs more effectively and efficiently when they are not bogged down with improperly prepared filings and unprepared litigants.
  • Court clerks can avoid some of the ethical quandaries that arise in trying to adequately assist self-represented litigants.
  • Private attorneys can more easily represent their own clients when the opposing self-represented litigant has necessary information and assistance.
  • Private attorneys may find a new source of business in providing limited scope representation to this type of client.

The Nebraska Supreme Court’s Self-Represented Litigation Committee, was established in 2003 to study and address the challenges posed by self-represented litigation. It is composed of judges, attorneys, and Judicial Branch administrative staff, as well as representatives from the Nebraska State Bar Association, the Nebraska State Bar Foundation, legal aid organizations, law school civil clinics, and libraries. The Committee will provide direction and oversight to the review team and will continue to actively pursue its goal to ensure equal access to the courts while maintaining impartiality, dignity, and efficiency in the judicial process.

Over the past 15 years, the Committee’s accomplishments have been many. A court employee training manual for working with self-represented litigants and an Online Legal Self-Help Center through the Judicial Branch website have been created. A limited scope representation court rule with a limited-scope toolkit for lawyers were adopted and uploaded to the website. Productive partnerships with the organized bar, Legal Aid of Nebraska, the law schools’ civil clinics, and the state’s public and law school libraries have been cultivated and maintained.