by Kevin Bliss
An assistance project for pro se litigants, started by retired federal judge Richard Posner, shut down after just over a year because there was much greater demand than could be provided by the organization.
Posner, who sat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit from 1981 to 2017, is an often-cited legal scholar and economist who teaches at the University of Chicago Law School.
The former jurist said he retired from the bench because the justice system was far from just when it came to pro se litigants. He explained that judges would often copy and paste from briefs submitted by seasoned lawyers when writing their opinions, giving pro se litigants the impression their motions were not independently analyzed and emphasizing the power imbalance between pro se litigants and opposing counsel, which is an abdication of the judge’s official duty as a neutral arbiter.
Posner added the legal system has made representation less affordable while at the same time created a maze of rules governing court proceedings, making it nearly impossible for pro se litigants to navigate.
He said he decided to help those mistreated by the legal system simply because they could not afford an attorney. So in March 2018 he launched the Posner Center for Justice for Pro Se’s, a nonprofit organization offering legal advice to pro se litigants at no cost. He believed there were at least a million pro se plaintiffs in the United States, many of them incarcerated; he wanted to let them know his organization was there “and then try to assist as many deserving pro se’s as possible.”
About 16 months later, however, the Posner Center was forced to close its doors. The need for assistance was just too great. A notice of dissolution, posted on the organization’s website on July 23, 2019, stated: “The mismatch was something on the order of 100 requests for assistance for every 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.”
The sheer volume of requests received by the organization is a clear indication that access to justice in America is in crisis.
Brian Vukadinovich, former executive director of the Posner Center, said the dissolution statement was nonsense and self-serving. He contended the lawyers involved in the project did not really want to help pro se litigants; they just wanted their name attached to the Posner Center. Vukadinovich said he contacted attorneys daily with requests, and almost every one would give “a ridiculous excuse to not provide help.”
Others, like Jenna Greene, a reporter for Law.com, said the attorneys were just overwhelmed. That measure of pro bono work could not be maintained without massive funding; carrying numerous free pro se clients generates no income, and bills still needed to be paid.
In June 2019, Posner became an adviser to Legalist, a litigation financing company, helping clients obtain legal assistance in “David versus Goliath”-type cases. “The principal motive for my retirement was the failure of the court to treat litigants without financial resources fairly. Litigation finance patches an important hole for businesses with valid claims who lack the funds to hire an attorney,” he stated.
Unfortunately, that still leaves the needs of the vast majority of pro se litigants – mostly prisoners – unmet.
Sources: justice-for-pro-ses.org, abovethelaw.com, blog.simplejustice.us, law.com
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