National Survey of Nonlawyer Assistance to Self-Represented Litigants Available to Court Leaders

According to a 2017 study by the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), 86% of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans receive inadequate or no legal help. Other justice agencies have confirmed this troubling national legal dilemma, including the National Center for State Courts which estimates that at least one party is self-represented in approximately three out of four civil cases in state courts.

In an ongoing effort to assess and expand workable, cost-efficient ways to help the unrepresented, the Justice Lab at the Georgetown Law Center reviewed the national landscape of “nonlawyer navigator programs” and reported on 23 initiatives in 15 state courts and the District of Columbia. Navigators are individuals who do not have full, formal legal credentials and training (e.g. law degree) but assist self-represented litigants on a person-to-person basis who have basic civil legal problems. They may be full or part-time staff or volunteers that function under a formal program and institutional auspices like a court or bar association, and are provided specialized training, such as learning the difference between legal information and legal advice.

Navigators work on a range of civil case types such as family, housing, debt collection, domestic violence, conservatorships and elder abuse. The programs reviewed demonstrate that well-trained and appropriately supervised navigators can perform a wide range of tasks. Although many programs have notably expanded access to justice for low- and marginal-income parties, the report cautions that inadequate, patchwork funding can pose a problem for many programs.

More about nonlawyer navigator systems, research recommendations, and ideas on developing projects in your jurisdiction are available by downloading the full report (PDF). Contact information (as of May 2019) for coordinators and directors of the 23 programs studied can be found in the report’s appendix. The Justice Lab study was funded through a grant from the Kresge Foundation.