Nationwide, as many as two-thirds of the litigants appear without lawyers in important legal matters like evictions, mortgage foreclosures, debt collection cases, and child custody proceedings. Too often, these self-represented litigants experience the courts as bewildering and hostile places that offer little hope of a meaningful "day in court." Many courts are build around a paradigm that assumes two parties who are both represented by attorneys-- even when their dockets are overwhelmingly populated by people who are trying to navigate the system alone.

Making courts user-friendly for self-represented litigants is imperative if we are to keep the promise of equal justice for all. People should have access to legal help when they need it-- but they should also be able to access a fair hearing when they appear in court without representation.

NCAJ has identified 56 policies that every state should adopt to make equal justice accessible to self-represented litigants. We then looked at every US state to determine how many of these policies they actually have in place. Based on those results, we assign every state a score. Performance is measured on a scale of 0 to 100. See our methodology discussion for more details on how this scoring works and on how we do the work.

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State Scores and Rankings

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Benchmarks: Weights and Trends

Number Sort descending Question Index Weight Issues Number of "Yes" States
1 Maintain an ABA-recognized ATJ commission (or equivalent entity) that has discretion over its own budget to support ATJ initiatives throughout the state? 5 Design & Planning 28
2 Fund a full-time executive director for the ATJ Commission? 5 Design & Planning 16
3 Fund a full-time equivalent staff position in the court system (separate from the AtJ Commission executive director, and from the court attorney) to coordinate and oversee ATJ programs throughout the state? 1 Design & Planning 20
4 Fund a full-time equivalent staff attorney in the court system to oversee self-help services statewide? 10 Design & Planning 14
5 Post online a strategic action plan, adopted or updated in the past five years, describing the State's plan to reach the Conference of Chief Judges' and Chief Court Administrators' goal of 100% meaningful access to justice? 5 Design & Planning 27
6 Review in past 12 months, the state's progress on the strategic action plan, post the findings on-line, and update the plan in response? 5 Design & Planning 14
7 Concluded a formal process in past 12 months of consulting with key stakeholders on ATJ issues, including but not limited to: the judiciary, the bar, low income communities, civil legal aid bar, and social services providers)? 5 Design & Planning 28
8 Provide judges with written guidance explaining the instruction in ABA Model Code of Judicial Conduct, Rule 2.2 and Comment 4, to assure impartiality and fairness for self-represented litigants by providing reasonable accommodation to SRLs, and in Turner v. Rogers, 564 U.S. 431 (2011), to employ “safeguards” that include explaining to SRLs the key legal issues and key evidentiary materials? 5 Design & Planning 18
9 Funded, in past 12 months, statewide judicial training on how to ensure that SRLs are fairly heard? 5 Design & Planning 26
10 Provide judges with a bench card or other document listing specific steps judges may take to assist SRLs in being fairly heard? 5 Design & Planning 19
11 Provide written guidance, such as a “clerks' card,” explaining and referencing ABA Model Code of Judicial Conduct, Rule 2.2 and Comment 4, to assure impartiality and fairness for self-represented litigants by providing reasonable accommodation to SRLs? 5 Design & Planning 13
12 Funded within past 12 months statewide education programs for clerks and court staff that include training on how to ensure that SRLs are fairly heard? 5 Design & Planning 23
13 Provide both written and on-line options for SRLs to rate the ease of use and effectiveness of court services and incorporate this information in the design and delivery of services? 5 Design & Planning 15
14 Provide written guidance to judges encouraging the use of plain language when speaking with SRLs? 5 Plain Language & Simplification 21
15 Guide judges to use plain language in all written communications with public? 5 Plain Language & Simplification 17
16 Use plain language court forms for all matters in which SRLs frequently appear (including at a minimum: housing, debt collection, family law and civil violations)? 10 Plain Language & Simplification 24
17 Test forms with intended users, applying commonly accepted methodologies for proper testing of consumer-use forms? 5 Plain Language & Simplification 11
18 Funded staff and/or activities intended to improve the quality of self-help forms in the past 12 months, including consultation with key stakeholders inside the courts (such as, judges and court staff) and outside the courts (SUCH AS members of low-income communities and advocates for SRLs)? 5 Plain Language & Simplification 26
19 Require that all courts in the state accept common statewide court forms for all critical steps (including to: initiate action, respond to action in manner that avoids default, assert available affirmative defenses, and request temporary relief where available), in the following actions: uncontested divorce without children? 1 Plain Language & Simplification 38
20 Require that all courts in the state accept common statewide court forms for all critical steps (including to: initiate action, respond to action in manner that avoids default, assert available affirmative defenses, and request temporary relief where available), in the following actions: uncontested divorce with children? 1 Plain Language & Simplification 36
21 Require that all courts in the state accept common statewide court forms for all critical steps (including to: initiate action, respond to action in manner that avoids default, assert available affirmative defenses, and request temporary relief where available), in the following actions: modification of a child support order? 1 Plain Language & Simplification 35
22 Require that all courts in the state accept common statewide court forms for all critical steps (including to: initiate action, respond to action in manner that avoids default, assert available affirmative defenses, and request temporary relief where available), in the following actions: order of protection? 1 Plain Language & Simplification 42
23 Require that all courts in the state accept common statewide court forms for all critical steps (including to: initiate action, respond to action in manner that avoids default, assert available affirmative defenses, and request temporary relief where available), in the following actions: debt collection? 1 Plain Language & Simplification 21
24 Require that all courts in the state accept common statewide court forms for all critical steps (including to: initiate action, respond to action in manner that avoids default, assert available affirmative defenses, and request temporary relief where available), in the following actions: eviction? 1 Plain Language & Simplification 19
25 Require that all courts in the state accept common statewide court forms for all critical steps (including to: initiate action, respond to action in manner that avoids default, assert available affirmative defenses, and request temporary relief where available), in the following actions: mortgage and tax foreclosure? 1 Plain Language & Simplification 10
26 Require that financial hardship waivers (i.e., in forma pauperis) apply to SRLs' administrative court costs, including but not limited to fees for: filing pleadings, obtaining copies of important documents, and filing appeals? 10 Service Delivery 37
27 Simplify financial hardship waiver prior to filing, by (i) reviewing applications filed in person, and filed on-line, and (ii) awarding waiver where applicant receives other public benefits based on poverty (e.g., Medicaid benefits; LSC services); or, where applicant's income level is beneath specified income level, documented by current W-2 or tax filing)? 5 Service Delivery 24
28 Fund, within the past 12 months, self-help centers staffed by attorneys and sufficient in capacity that an SRL in any court in the state may be referred to a specific self-help center that is responsible to assist SRLs in that particular court? 10 Service Delivery 13
29 Fund remote access self-help services offering live assistance by telephone or internet during the past 12 months? 10 Service Delivery 23
30 Fund training for local non-attorney professionals (e.g., librarians, social workers) on securing access to attorney-supported self-help services? 5 Service Delivery 9
31 Require parties, prior to proceeding with actions to collect alleged debt, to file documentation of legal entitlement to the amount sought. See, e.g., Conf. of Chief Justices Conf. of Chief Court Administrators, Resolution 4, In Support of Rules Regarding Default Judgments in Debt Collection Cases (8/22/2018)? 5 Service Delivery 16
32 Require that all proceedings in all courts be recorded either through court reporters or audio/video technology? 5 Service Delivery 18
33 Allow litigants to bring cellphones into all courtrooms? 5 Service Delivery 17
34 Provide on the state judiciary website a complete list, with all pertinent links, of each statewide” navigator program” in the courts that uses non-lawyers who are not court staff to provide person to person assistance to SRLs (For definition of “navigator program,” see Navigators in State Courts, at 11-12)? 5 Service Delivery 4
35 Provide on the state judiciary website a complete list, with all pertinent links, of each non-statewide (or, local) navigator program” in the courts that uses non-lawyers who are not court staff to provide person to person assistance to SRLs (For definition of “navigator program,” see Navigators in State Courts, at 11-12)? 5 Service Delivery 8
36 Maintain a Court website with these features: (1) clear, consistent, plain language names for services,
(2) consistent and recognizable logos and
(3) navigation or “way-finding” tools widely used on consumer-facing internet portals to allow people to easily locate and access the help they need?
1 Communicating Court Services 46
37 Make the Court website easily and fully accessible on mobile devices? 5 Communicating Court Services 46
38 Offer litigants the option to receive text message reminders of all appointments and hearings? 5 Communicating Court Services 9
39 Have the Court website marked up by Schema.org (or equivalent service) to ensure it appears properly on internet searches? 1 Communicating Court Services 37
40 Require court staff to explain to every litigant that a financial hardship waiver of fees and court costs will be granted if a person meets the eligibility standard? 10 Communicating Court Services 12
41 Describe on the state judiciary website that a financial hardship waiver of fees and court costs will be granted if a person meets the eligibility standard? 10 Communicating Court Services 31
42 Maintain on the state judiciary website a single, easily located page that provides SRLs with links to all required forms (in MS Word and PDF format), and identify all required supporting materials for all critical litigation steps (including, to initiate an action, respond to an action in a manner that avoids default judgment, assert available affirmative defenses and to request temporary relief where available) in the following types of matters: All court forms necessary to fulfill the minimum filing obligations for a couple without children to obtain an uncontested divorce, and all supporting materials necessary for a court to consider the merits of the case? 1 Communicating Court Services 45
43 Maintain on the state judiciary website a single, easily located page that provides SRLs with links to all required forms (in MS Word and PDF format), and identify all required supporting materials for all critical litigation steps (including, to initiate an action, respond to an action in a manner that avoids default judgment, assert available affirmative defenses and to request temporary relief where available) in the following types of matters: All court forms necessary to fulfill the minimum filing obligations for a couple with children to obtain an uncontested divorce, and all supporting materials necessary for a court to consider the merits of the case? 1 Communicating Court Services 41
44 Maintain on the state judiciary website a single, easily located page that provides SRLs with links to all required forms (in MS Word and PDF format), and identify all required supporting materials for all critical litigation steps (including, to initiate an action, respond to an action in a manner that avoids default judgment, assert available affirmative defenses and to request temporary relief where available) in the following types of matters: All court forms necessary to fulfill the minimum filing obligations for a petitioner to obtain a modification of a child support order, and all supporting materials necessary for a court to consider the merits of the case? 1 Communicating Court Services 40
45 Maintain on the state judiciary website a single, easily located page that provides SRLs with links to all required forms (in MS Word and PDF format), and identify all required supporting materials for all critical litigation steps (including, to initiate an action, respond to an action in a manner that avoids default judgment, assert available affirmative defenses and to request temporary relief where available) in the following types of matters: All court forms necessary to fulfill the minimum filing obligations for a domestic violence victim to obtain an order of protection, and all supporting materials necessary for a court to consider the merits of the case? 1 Communicating Court Services 47
46 Maintain on the state judiciary website a single, easily located page that provides SRLs with links to all required forms (in MS Word and PDF format), and identify all required supporting materials for all critical litigation steps (including, to initiate an action, respond to an action in a manner that avoids default judgment, assert available affirmative defenses and to request temporary relief where available) in the following types of matters: All court forms necessary to fulfill the minimum filing obligations for a defendant in a debt collection action to both prevent a default and to assert defenses, and all supporting materials the defendant must provide for a court to consider the merits of the case? 1 Communicating Court Services 16
47 Maintain on the state judiciary website a single, easily located page that provides SRLs with links to all required forms (in MS Word and PDF format), and identify all required supporting materials for all critical litigation steps (including, to initiate an action, respond to an action in a manner that avoids default judgment, assert available affirmative defenses and to request temporary relief where available) in the following types of matters: All court forms necessary to fulfill the minimum filing obligations for a defendant in an eviction action brought by a landlord to both prevent a default and to assert defenses, and all supporting materials the defendant must provide for a court to consider the merits of the case? 1 Communicating Court Services 24
48 Maintain on the state judiciary website a single, easily located page that provides SRLs with links to all required forms (in MS Word and PDF format), and identify all required supporting materials for all critical litigation steps (including, to initiate an action, respond to an action in a manner that avoids default judgment, assert available affirmative defenses and to request temporary relief where available) in the following types of matters: All court forms necessary to fulfill the minimum filing obligations for a defendant in a mortgage or tax foreclosure action to both prevent a default and to assert defenses, and all supporting materials the defendant must provide for a court to consider the merits of the case? 1 Communicating Court Services 11
49 Maintain computer-based document assembly self-help programs to assist litigants in the following types of actions: Actions seeking an uncontested divorce for a couple without children? 1 Technology 25
50 Maintain computer-based document assembly self-help programs to assist litigants in the following types of actions: Actions seeking an uncontested divorce for a couple with children? 1 Technology 20
51 Maintain computer-based document assembly self-help programs to assist litigants in the following types of actions: Actions seeking modification or a child support order? 1 Technology 14
52 Maintain computer-based document assembly self-help programs to assist litigants in the following types of actions: Actions seeking an order of protection? 1 Technology 19
53 Maintain computer-based document assembly self-help programs to assist litigants in the following types of actions: Defense of debt collection actions? 1 Technology 9
54 Maintain computer-based document assembly self-help programs to assist litigants in the following types of actions: Defense of eviction actions? 1 Technology 13
55 Maintain computer-based document assembly self-help programs to assist litigants in the following types of actions: Defense of mortgage and tax foreclosure actions? 1 Technology 2
56 Provide access to the Court's electronic filing system to SRLs (and, where authorized, any non-attorneys who may be assisting SRLs) on-line through any computer? 1 Technology 24

Benchmarks by State