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Issue 5: Enhancing Access to the Judicial Process

How can courts remain comprehensible, accessible, and affordable for people who participate in the judicial process while responding to demographic and socioeconomic changes?

Issue Description 

Courts are obligated to be open and accessible to anyone who initiates or is drawn into federal litigation, including litigants, lawyers, jurors, and witnesses. The federal courts must consider carefully whether they are continuing to meet the litigation needs of court users. This plan includes two strategies that focus on identifying unnecessary barriers to court access, and taking steps to eliminate them:

The views of participants — including parties, lawyers and jurors — should be solicited as a first step in implementing these strategies.

Strategy 5.1 

Ensure that court rules, processes, and procedures meet the needs of lawyers and litigants in the judicial process.

Background and Commentary. The accessibility of court processes to lawyers and litigants is a component of the judiciary’s core value of equal justice, but making courts readily accessible is difficult. Providing access is even more difficult when people look to the federal courts to address problems that cannot be solved within the federal courts’ limited jurisdiction, when claims are not properly raised, and when judicial processes are not well understood.

To improve access, rules of practice and procedure undergo regular review and revision to reflect changes in law, to simplify and clarify procedures, and to enhance uniformity across districts. Rules changes have also been made to help reduce cost and delay in the civil discovery process, to address the growing role of electronic discovery, and to take widespread advantage of technology in court proceedings. National mechanisms to consolidate and coordinate multidistrict litigation avoid duplication of discovery, prevent inconsistent pretrial rulings, and conserve the resources of the parties, their counsel, and the judiciary. In addition, many courts provide settlement conferences, mediation programs, and other forms of alternative dispute resolution to parties interested in resolving their claims prior to a judicial decision. Despite these and other efforts, some lawyers, litigants, and members of the public continue to find litigating in the federal courts challenging. Court operations and processes vary across districts and chambers, and pursuing federal litigation can be time consuming and expensive.

To improve access for lawyers and litigants in the judicial process, this plan includes the following goals:

Goal 5.1a:   Ensure that court rules, processes, and procedures are published or posted in an accessible manner.

Goal 5.1b:   Adopt measures designed to provide flexibility in the handling of cases, while reducing cost, delay, and other unnecessary burdens to litigants in the adjudication of disputes.

Strategy 5.2 

Ensure that the federal judiciary is open and accessible to those who participate in the judicial process.

Background and Commentary. As part of its commitment to the core value of equal justice, the federal judiciary seeks to assure that all who participate in federal court proceedings — including jurors, litigants, witnesses, and observers — are treated with dignity and respect and understand the process. The judiciary’s national website and the websites of individual courts provide the public with information about the courts themselves, court rules, procedures and forms, judicial orders and decisions, and schedules of court proceedings. Court dockets and case papers and files are posted on the internet through a judiciary-operated public access system. Court forms commonly used by the public have been rewritten in an effort to make them clearer and simpler to use, and court facilities are now designed to provide greater access to persons with disabilities. Some districts offer electronic tools to assist pro se filers in generating civil complaints. The Judicial Conference is working to enhance citizen participation in juries by improving the degree to which juries are representative of the communities in which they serve, reducing the burden of jury service, and improving juror utilization.

However, federal court processes are complex, and it is an ongoing challenge to ensure that participants have access to information about court processes and individual court cases, as well as court facilities. Many who come to the courts also have limited proficiency in English, and resources to provide interpretation and translation services are limited, particularly for civil litigants. Continued efforts are needed, and this strategy sets forth four goals to make courts more accessible for jurors, litigants, witnesses, and others.

Goal 5.2a:   Provide jurors, litigants, witnesses, and observers with comprehensive, readily accessible information about court cases and the work of the courts.

Goal 5.2b:   Reduce the hardships associated with jury service, and improve the experiences of citizens serving as grand and petit jurors.

Goal 5.2c:   Improve the extent to which juries are representative of the communities in which they serve.

Goal 5.2d:   Develop best practices for handling claims of pro se litigants in civil and bankruptcy cases.