Thursday, July 22, 2010

Serving Self-Represented Litigants Guide Provides Welcome Permission to Help

The Trial Court's new Serving the Self-Represented Litigant: A Guide By and For Massachusetts Court Staff does a great job of explaining what court staff may and may not do. Often court employees had been so leery of providing legal advice that they were reluctant to provide much guidance at all, particularly to the self-represented. This publication provides specific guidance on what is and isn't OK, and should free staff to answer some basic questions, particularly about forms. It says, for example:

"Providing court forms and instructions on how to fill out those forms is an important part of the job of court staff...Court staff may answer questions about how to complete court forms, including where to write particular types of information, and may explain what unfamiliar legal terms mean.Court staff also can check forms for completeness and provide information about specific problems on the form and how to resolve them."

That stands in marked contrast to activities that are not permissible for court staff, such as "Advising a court user whether to bring a particular case or problem before the court, Suggesting which of several procedures or options a court user should follow, " and the like.

This understanding of the important role of court staff is exciting and should improve the interaction for both the self-represented litigant and the staff person who is now free to provide the reasonable assistance needed.