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Just the Facts: Trends in Pro Se Civil Litigation from 2000 to 2019

Just the Facts is a feature that highlights issues and trends in the Judiciary based on data collected by the Judiciary Data and Analysis Office (JDAO) of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Comments, questions, and suggestions can be sent to JDAO.

Most federal pro se cases are civil actions filed by people serving time in prison. Pro se prisoner petitions spiked in 2016 after a pair of Supreme Court rulings made it possible for certain prisoners to petition to have their sentences vacated or remanded. Non-prisoners who file pro se actions most often raise civil rights claims.

Background

The legal term pro se, which refers to self-representation in a court of law, is directly translated from Latin as “for oneself” or “on one’s own behalf.” Each time a party to litigation appears in court without the assistance of counsel, the court proceeding is called pro se. A party to a lawsuit may hire an attorney and terminate pro se status at any time.

All state courts have some form of written or precedent-based rules that allow pro se representation. In federal courts, the rights of self-represented litigants are addressed in the U.S. Judiciary Act, the Code of Conduct for United States Judges, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, the Federal Rules of Evidence, the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, and the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure. Bankruptcy petitioners, parties in appeals cases, and criminal defendants may also represent themselves. This article focuses on civil pro se filings in the U.S. district courts1.   

Facts and Figures

Figures and Map

Note: Click on the tabs below to view the figures and map.


1 For more information about filing bankruptcy without an attorney, please see https://uscourts.gov/services-forms/bankruptcy/filing-without-attorney.

2 Prisoner petitions may be filed for the following reasons: habeas corpus challenges to the constitutionality of imprisonment, civil rights violations, petitions for writs of mandamus compelling lower courts/officers to perform their duty, and challenges to the constitutionality of the sentence (by federal inmates only). For more information about types of prisoner petitions, see Scalia, John. 1997. Prisoner Petitions in the Federal Courts, 1980 – 96. Report prepared for the Bureau of Justice Statistics. https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/ppfc96.pdf. Retrieved August 13, 2020.

3 For more information about these Supreme Court decisions, see:
Johnson v. United States, 576 U. S. ____ (2015)
Welch v. United States, 578 U. S. ____ (2016)  
Office of the General Counsel. Selected Supreme Court Cases on Sentencing Issues. November 2019. https://www.ussc.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/training/case-law-documents/2019-supreme-court-cases.pdf. Retrieved August 13, 2020.

4 Filing counts from the Federal Judicial Center’s Integrated Database (IDB) collects termination and pending case data. As a result, filing counts form the IDB may not match filing counts in the published tables of the Administrative Office of U.S. Federal Courts.
The Federal Judicial Center’s Integrated Database: https://www.fjc.gov/research/idb
Statistical Tables for the Federal Judiciary: https://www.uscourts.gov/statistics-reports/caseload-statistics-data-tables

5 The type of lawsuit, or nature of suit, is determined by the federal code(s) specified in the complaint.

6 Wood, Jefri. 2016. Pro Se Case Management for Nonprisoner Civil Litigation. Washington, D.C.: Federal Judicial Center. https://www.fjc.gov/sites/default/files/2017/Pro_Se_Case_Management_for_Nonprisoner_Civil_Litigation.pdf. Retrieved August 13, 2020.

7 Stienstra, Donna, Jared Bataillon, and Jason A. Cantone. Assistance to Pro Se Litigants in U.S. District Courts: A Report on Surveys of Clerks of Court and Chief Judges. 2011. Federal Judicial Center. https://www.fjc.gov/sites/default/files/2012/ProSeUSDC.pdf. Retrieved August 13, 2020.