Pro Se Litigation: Best Practices from a Judge’s Perspective
The Honorable Beverly W. Snukals *
Glen H. Sturtevant, Jr. **
The days when every litigant was represented by an attorney are from a bygone era. The clogged dockets of general district courts are a testament to the prevalence of pro se litigation in Virginia. As self-representation has increased in recent times, court systems nationwide, including Virginia’s, have lagged in meeting the increased challenges of pro se litigation. The purpose of this essay is to offer ways the legislature, judiciary, and the bar can adequately and efficiently deal with the rise in pro se litigation.
Unlike indigent criminal defendants, litigants in civil cases do not have a right to court-appointed legal representation. In the absence of such a right, the moral imperative demanding equal access to the justice system mandates that individuals be permitted to represent themselves in their legal affairs when they cannot afford, or choose not to hire, an attorney. To limit the right to self-represent would reserve access to the justice system only to those able to afford legal representation. The inefficiencies of pro se litigation in its current state, however, are also unacceptable and require positive change.
The types of cases typically involving pro se litigants include landlord-tenant, traffic, and family law cases, which usually involve support, custody, and visitation issues. Pro se litigants are also commonly found in small claims courts. In addition to the General Assembly’s effort to ameliorate the difficulties pro se parties face by barring lawyers from small claims courts, it also repealed Virginia Code section 16.1-92, which allowed a party, who was typically represented, to remove a case from general district court to circuit court, where pro se litigants often have a more difficult time complying with the additional, more stringent procedures and deadlines. Despite the inability of a represented party to remove a case to circuit court and the implementation of small claims courts across the Commonwealth, additional measures must be put in place to better meet the challenges of pro se litigation.