On Friday, April 26, three University of Tulsa College of Law students will travel to the Oklahoma Supreme Court to share their research with and present actionable solutions to the Oklahoma Access to Justice Commission. Their efforts, which were undertaken as part of their involvement with the Lobeck Taylor Community Advocacy Clinic, focused on improving and simplifying the court experience for self-represented litigants in civil court.
This project is part of a larger, national movement to improve access to justice in civil courts. In Oklahoma and across the country, there is no right to counsel in civil court. Approximately 75% of civil cases involve at least one unrepresented party and, for issues such as eviction, some estimates state that 90% of cases involve at least one self-represented party (typically the tenant).
Navigating Tulsa’s housing court
Since December 2018, 3L student Leslie Briggs and 2L student Kate Forest have been working with Judge Ludi Leitch on improving user experience and self-advocacy for self-represented tenants and landlords in the Tulsa County District Court’s Housing Court. Their project combines design thinking, legal analysis, process simplification and community collaboration to improve access to justice for self-represented litigants.
“We are taking national best practices on access to justice and applying them to our local housing court,” said Briggs. “We have two agendas: to improve access to justice for self-represented litigants in Tulsa Housing Court and to raise awareness about the national access to justice crisis in civil courts. Most folks know about the crisis of mass incarceration in our criminal courts, but they have no idea what’s happening on the civil side.”
“Civil justice problems affect people’s most basic needs – shelter, family, income,” said Forest. “If you are already marginalized or vulnerable, you have even more to lose when a civil justice problem occurs.”
For their project, Briggs and Forest looked beyond the traditional legal profession to find inspiration from and partnership with outside groups. These included Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma, landlord and plaintiff attorneys, local faith organizations and even 4th- and 5th-grade students from Riverfield Country Day School. The latter two groups were critical to the project because they provided unique, non-lawyer perspectives.
In order to create their informational tools, Briggs and Forest used a human-centered design (HCD) framework. HCD prioritizes the consumer’s perspective, needs and experiences during the entire design process. “Legal design is an emerging field within the broader legal profession,” said Forest. “Design thinking has helped me, as a law student, look for collaborative, iterative solutions to serious problems in the civil justice system.”
Simplified court forms project
When they cannot afford or find a lawyer, people must face the complexity of civil litigation on their own. In response to the massive number of self-represented litigants in civil courts, many states have developed a range of simplified court forms for use by the general public. Oklahoma currently has simplified court forms in only one area of the law: domestic violence protective orders.
3L student Elizabeth Govig (BA ’16) worked with Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma to develop simplified statewide court forms and an implementation plan for minor guardianship proceedings. “Many, if not most, people seeking guardianship over a child cannot afford legal representation or even know that obtaining a guardianship is a legal process,” said Govig. “Access to simple, easy-to-understand forms will help to ease the burden on families in need of guardianship proceedings.”
As a state that has been dramatically affected by the opioid crisis, Oklahoma has an especially acute need for easy access to guardianships. The complete set of guardianship forms Govig developed are written in plain language and meant to be made available in clerks’ offices and other locations for those who cannot access the internet or who prefer paper forms.
“Through their work to develop solutions for self-represented litigants in Oklahoma, Leslie, Kate and Elizabeth have gone from being law students to access-to-justice leaders,” said Clinic Director Anna Carpenter. “The work they’ve done this semester is groundbreaking and first-of-its-kind for this state. Their efforts are an example of the transformative power of real-world problem-solving projects as a teaching tool for law students, and as a way to increase access to justice. I look forward to seeing their solutions implemented in Tulsa and, hopefully, in courts across Oklahoma.”
Forest has one more year to go in her legal studies, while her clinic colleagues Briggs and Govig are getting set to start their careers.
After she receives her JD, Briggs will work remotely for the Self-Represented Litigation Network (SRLN) as an access to justice associate. Her focus will be on initiatives to help improve the impact of legal services project and programs, researching best practices for judges and self-represented parties and organizing law students to participate in SRLN activities. Govig has accepted a position as a staff attorney at Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma. In that role, she will serve and represent low-income Oklahomans in a variety of legal contexts.