Limited Scope Representation: Increasing Access for Pro Se Litigants

By Klaus Sitte, MLSA Litigation DirectorWho would have thought that the American Bar Association would participate in and encourage programs designed to help pro se litigants? After all, the ABA is a membership organization composed of lawyers, not pro se litigants, right? Well, that’s exactly what happened when the ABA Commission on Domestic Violence sponsored its latest in the series of “Best Practices for Lawyers Assisting Pro Se Victims of Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, and Stalking with Civil Protection Cases.”Under a grant from the US Department of Justice, Office of Violence Against Women, this particular program was held in conjunction with the annual Equal Justice Conference sponsored by the ABA and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association last month. The Best Practices CLE was designed for lawyers who are planning to implement or who are already implementing pro se projects around the country. Attended by more than 2 dozen participants, the program highlighted the ethical duties of lawyers providing pro se assistance, along with the delivery and implementation of pro se help.A special resource for the participants was a “zip drive” which included material from the Montana, particularly an article by Sue Talia, a national expert on Limited Scope Representation [LSR]. Ms. Talia helped make the case for limited scope representation with her continuing legal education presentations and her advocacy on behalf of LSR nationwide and in Montana.The LSR order adopted by the Montana Supreme Court on March 15 is the culmination of the long and complicated effort led by the Equal Justice Task force, the State Bar’s Access to Justice Committee and so many others interested in pursuing access to justice efforts throughout Montana. With the overwhelming number of pro se litigants appearing in our courts, along with the ever-increasing need for access to the court system, the changes to the Montana Rules of Professional Conduct and the Montana Rules of Civil Procedure authorized by the Court’s order should enable pro se litigants to receive limited services from a new cadre of lawyers. Pro se litigants, for the most part, want to appear prepared when they go to court. The LSR rule changes may give those litigants just what they need: some help, instead of no help. At least that’s the hope of all who worked on the issue.Legal Aid programs face another round of funding cuts, losing staff and resources to the federal budget battle. Receiving adequate funding to help all those who request assistance from MLSA is simply not a practical option today and unlikely to be in the near future. Fewer MLSA staff and resources means less help, without a doubt. LSR may just be what’s needed now to encourage lawyers who have not considered offering services before.As Justice Beth Baker noted in her concurring comments to the Order, “… a significant portion of our citizens’ legal needs still go unmet under the current rules. The amendments adopted by the Court … will encourage a new vision for innovation and cooperation….” Montana’s rule changes, along with programs such as the ABA’s Pro Se Institute, are now another resource when other professional services are unavailable. Most of us would agree that direct representation by a lawyer is the best solution. When that’s not possible, perhaps limited scope representation will help.