Persons who represent themselves when filing civil lawsuits in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri can get help from a user-friendly, interactive web application called E Pro Se.
"This document-assembly program actually walks the pro se litigant through the creation of certain civil complaints by asking a series of questions in the form of an interview or dialogue," said Clerk of Court James Woodward.
The information obtained from a user creates a document printed in a format that provides the court with essential information about the type of claim the filer intends to present for resolution. Documents required for Social Security, employment, and civil rights complaints can be created with E Pro Se.
Similar programs have been popular in state courts for some time, and other federal trial courts have taken notice of what the St. Louis-based district court is offering. "We’ve conducted E Pro Se training sessions for about 20 other districts so far," Woodward said.
E Pro Se was one of seven technology initiatives in six federal courts that received grants from the Edwin L. Nelson Local Initiatives Program in 2005. The grants promote the development of local court IT systems that are then posted on Ed’s Place, the Judiciary’s national clearinghouse for locally developed applications.
Woodward said his court’s IT staff had planned on designing its own software but discovered that a product, A2J (Access to Justice), had already been developed and was available from the Chicago-Kent College of Law. The A2J program provided the technical framework for creating a customized interface and dialog with the self-represented user.
"The process of customizing the interview for our specific needs nevertheless was a long and laborious one, which included using our pro se law clerks as subject-matter experts and having our judges review various content proposals. We also solicited feedback from law professors at the St. Louis University law school’s civil legal clinic," he said.
E Pro Se was first implemented on a limited basis in the fall of 2008. Users had to travel to the courthouse in St. Louis and use a stand-alone PC in the court’s Self-Help Center, adjacent to the public area within the clerk’s office. Training on E Pro Se’s use is provided by clerk’s office staff.
That option still exists, but since December 2009 the program has been offered on-line, via the court’s Internet web site, www.moed.uscourts.gov/prose/EProSe.html. Pro se filers now can use the software at home if they have a computer with Internet access, but still must go to the clerk’s office to file the document they create. (The Eastern District of Missouri prohibits pro se litigants to file remotely, but E Pro Se could be implemented by a court to facilitate remote electronic filing.)
"Because we did not spend all the grant money on development, there was money available to help other federal courts get introduced to, and trained on, E Pro Se," Woodward said. "Other courts have gotten started at no expense."
The U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota has already launched its pilot E Pro Se, and the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts plans to implement an E Pro Se application soon.
Woodward added that having E Pro Se on-line is expected to increase its use. "I anticipate we may see 30 to 40 to 50 cases per year," he said. "We are publicizing its availability with brochures that have been distributed, among other places, to all St. Louis public libraries."
E Pro Se is just one of several initiatives aimed at making federal courts more accessible to those members of the public who pursue civil claims without the benefit of an attorney. Navigating the federal court system can be a daunting task for the non-lawyer, and courts have long used various methods to make the process more user-friendly.
- The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California last year opened a Pro Se Clinic funded and staffed by an international private law firm and a public interest law firm. It is staffed by two lawyers and is managed by the public interest law firm.
- The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois for several years has operated a "help desk" where non-lawyers can get advice from a volunteer attorney.
- The U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Arizona sponsors a "self-help center" where members of its clerk’s staff take turns offering assistance to non-lawyers.