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Help Offered for Pro Se Filers and Bankruptcy Courts
Filing a bankruptcy case pro se—without the assistance of an attorney—is not for
the faint of heart. “Before the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer
Protection Act of 2005 (BAPCPA), a pro se debtor could successfully navigate
filing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy,” said Bankruptcy Judge S. Martin Teel, Jr.
(D.D.C.). “But with the new Act and its many technical requirements, it’s really
a minefield for pro se filers.”
Now the Administrative Office’s
Bankruptcy Judges Advisory Group (BJAG), of which Teel is a member, has
developed a helpful web page for individuals who are thinking of filing a
bankruptcy petition pro se. The website is www.uscourts.gov/bankruptcycourts/prose.html.
noted the growth in pro se filings around the country, particularly after the
BAPCPA was implemented,” said Chief Bankruptcy Judge Judith Wizmur (D. NJ),
BJAG’s chair. “The reason for the increase may be that some attorneys who
dabbled in bankruptcy filings were driven out of the field, deterred by the
complexities and the greater impositions the law placed on attorneys. The growth
in pro se filings also has increased pressure on bankruptcy clerks and courts,
so we thought we could assist with a web page for pro se filers.”
website’s message is cautionary. “While individuals can file a bankruptcy case
without an attorney or pro se,” the opening text warns, “it is extremely
difficult to do it successfully. . . . The rules are very technical, and a
misstep may affect a debtor’s rights. For example, a debtor whose case is
dismissed for failure to file a required document, . . . may lose the right to
file another case or lose protections in a later case, including the benefit of
the automatic stay.”
If an individual is still intent on filing pro se,
the page provides information on credit counseling, free legal services,
foreclosure resources, and petition preparers. Links direct a user to the local
website of the court in which they may file a bankruptcy petition.
pro se website is the BJAG’s first round effort. “It will evolve and become more
sophisticated with links to other organizations,” Wizmur said. The site already
links to the ABA and its attorney resources, the Legal Services Corporation,
HUD’s approved housing counseling agencies, the Federal Trade Commission’s
mortgage facts for consumers, and Freddie Mac’s guide to avoiding foreclosures.
“We’re also exploring the role of the clerk’s office to see how we can
help them,” Wizmur adds. She notes that a very large pro se population prompted
the clerk’s office in the Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of New York
to hire the first pro se law clerk just for bankruptcy. The Advisory Group also
will have suggestions for the physical set-up of the clerk’s office—in terms of
computer access—that may help filers and court staff.
“There is great
variation in how individual courts handle pro se filers,” said Wizmur. “Some are
successful in reaching out to pro se filers, and some could use some
That’s why the Advisory Group’s next step will be to disseminate
information to bankruptcy judges on some of the approaches being taken by courts
in pro se bankruptcy filing.
“We recognized that it will be useful for
the bankruptcy courts to be apprised of the different approaches in providing
assistance to pro se parties,” said Teel, who chairs a subcommittee established
by BJAG. For example, his subcommittee is canvassing various court websites
regarding information made available to pro ses. The subcommittee’s goal is a
compilation for bankruptcy judges regarding useful approaches so that a court
will not need to reinvent the wheel in implementing steps to assist pro
“We are looking to assist the local courts,” said Wizmur. “We
highlight the possibilities and programs. Each bankruptcy court will structure
their resources their own way.”