Field Research/ Qualitative Analysis
MA Trial Court
(Team of 6)
(Sep 2022 - Dec 2022)
A pro se litigant, or self-represented litigant (SRL), is an individual without a lawyer acting on their own behalf for a case or trial they are directly involved in. The study specifically looked to evaluate the SRL's experience as they journey through the court system. It aimed at identifying pain points and areas for improvement and making appropriate recommendations. Although SRL experience is a broad scope, the study revolved around the efficacy of legal help available to these SRLs via legal aid organizations.
A handful of interconnected reasons have led to an increase in the number of SRLs. The unfamiliar and high-pressure environment of the court presents a multitude of issues that could lead to SRLs feeling obstructed from a fair chance at justice. These pro se litigants bring a host of challenges with them, that the court must meet and overcome to continue to serve all court users. In addition to creating additional work for court workers, the level of assistance needed by SRLs creates risks to impartiality. There is a necessity to make justice accessible and various legal aid organizations have stepped up to provide free legal aid. However, not much is known about how helpful these organizations prove to be from the SRL perspective, and what is SRL experience while accessing justice.
Given the aforementioned challenges that SRLs face when navigating their civil cases, our team sought to answer the following question: How might we improve the experience of PSLs seeking and accessing free legal aid?
The team started with virtual informational interviews with officials from MA Trial Court and managers of legal aid organizations, to understand the scope of the study. After initial conversations and a literature review to better understand the context, the team collected qualitative data through different field research methods. The data were then subjected to qualitative analysis (rooted in grounded theory). Data collection involved four phases:
1. Observing local district courts (Direct Observation)
2. Calling district court access lines (Participant Observation)
3. Interviewing participants at CSC and VLP (Semi-Structured Interviews)
4. Information gathering for getting a divorce (Participant Observation)
The research was presented to an audience of 21 people, inclusive of court members and CSC members. It helped identify issues and suggest improvements to the SRL experience. The details, enumerated in the report and the presentation, shall be leveraged to convey the pain points to the CSC staff and other administrators in the court, including the chief justice. As recommended in the research, the MA Trial Court is likely to investigate further, plan and implement the necessary measures to increase awareness and mitigate the highlighted issues, thereby attempting to improve the overall experience for the pro se litigants.
To address the project goal, we decided to collect data on and provide insight into the following research questions:
What is the user experience like for low-income litigants when seeking and obtaining free legal services?
What types of offerings are available from these free legal aid services and what types of cases do they help with?
How often are these services used?
How effective are these services?
In general, what are the best ways to improve access to justice for pro se litigants?
A literature review of about 30 sources helped the team to understand more about the pro se litigants- from a historical perspective, the reasons for the rise in the number of pro se litigants, the issues that these litigants face, why and how are these issues a matter of concern for the court, and about that the term 'access to justice' encompasses. These learnings would later be leveraged while setting up the base for the study and in analyzing data, generating insights, and making recommendations.
In accordance with our discussions with the court staff, the study goal and scope, and the research questions, the team prepared an observation guide to be used while making field observations, and an interview guide to refer to while conducting interviews.
The interview guide was leveraged as a starting point, but some new questions were presented over the course of an interview depending on the context, background, and role of the person being interviewed. As shown, there were a separate set of questions for attorneys and for litigants. After initial interviews, we realized that some questions were irrelevant or could be answered through self-directed research. As a result, we modified our interview guide for brevity and effectiveness.
Phase 1: Observing the local district courts
To acquaint ourselves with the trial court system, we started off the project by each visiting a local district court for 1-2 hours. We sat in the courtrooms, listened to court proceedings, and took handwritten notes on what we were observing. We exchanged our initial observations with one another and established a better understanding of the overall district court setup and processes
Phase 2: Calling district court access lines
To continue acquainting ourselves with the virtual offerings of the Trial Court, over the course of 4 weeks, from mid-September to mid-October, four researchers from our team attempted to call Direct Access Lines on seven separate occasions and were unable to connect and listen to proceedings. The District Courts’ Access Lines attempted were Attleboro, Cambridge, Waltham, and Newton.
Phase 3: Interviewing participants at the CSC and VLP
This phase constituted the vast majority of our time and contributed the most to our findings. The team coordinated with CSCs and VLP to arrange virtual and in-person interviews. In these interviews, we spoke to attorneys, litigants, and other legal aid organization representatives. For SRLs, after the litigant spoke with someone from the CSC or VLP, they were asked if they were willing to speak with our research team for a few minutes. If they were willing to speak with us, we conducted semi-structured interviews based on an SRL-specific interview guide we created. Conversations ranged from five minutes to forty minutes, depending on their availability and willingness to speak with us. For lawyers, we used an attorney-specific interview guide and took any available opportunity to speak with them in between their appointments with SRLs. Due to the sensitive nature of the interview content, interviews were not recorded, all data was typed or written, participants were asked only to provide first names to preserve anonymity, and no specific case data were solicited.
n total, we interviewed (n = 28) litigants ( 6 from VLP, 22 from CSC) and (n = 14) lawyers (7 from VLP and 7 from CSC). Included in the lawyer count are two legal interns and one interpreter.
Phase 4: Information gathering for getting a divorce
As part of our research, we investigated the in-person experience of finding out about legal aid resources from local courthouses. Our main objective was not to compare the quality of service but to identify the consistency of information given by different district courts and registries.
We visited different District and Family and Probate courthouses around Middlesex. At the Registry of each, we asked for information on obtaining a divorce. After asking for information about getting a divorce, we asked if there was anyone who would be able to provide information on filling out the forms or the process. Researchers in our group traveled to seven different court locations and made 9 visits in total over a period of 3 weeks in November and December. Four of the courts were district courts in Middlesex, we also went to three Family and Probate courts. Two of the Family and Probate courts had Court Service Centers in the same building. One of the Family and Probate courts was standalone. Researchers also called the 4 numbers given during these visits (3 were unique), as well as calling 5 different Family and Probate numbers listed on the mass.gov website
The team leveraged Charmaz’s Grounded Theory as our approach to analyzing the qualitative data collected from the four phases of our research outlined above.
During each interview or court visit, we took extensive handwritten or typed notes that we imported into Dovetail, a collaborative customer research analysis platform.
Once our data was uploaded in Dovetail, researchers, working in groups of three or four, coded each interview line by line which precipitated 49 codes.
After coding interview notes, the entire team would come together to discuss, refine, and synthesize the codes.
This exercise helped distill the main themes of our qualitative findings. We analyzed this data to derive insights based on our findings, which ultimately informed our recommendations.
The broad-level themes which emerged from the findings were the complexity of the legal system, lack of awareness, inconsistency of information provided, litigants' perception of the court system, tech barriers, interdepartmental communication, a lack of staff, and how helpful the free legal services are.
Some of the recommendations involve boosting the number of volunteers, investigating issues with consistency of information, directing the litigants who are seeking help to call the virtual CSC, standardizing the information given to litigants, implementing strategies to increase awareness regarding legal aid resources and simplifying court forms.
As end-of-the-study deliverables, we compiled a report of our findings and prepared a presentation to communicate our findings and recommendations to the MA Trial Court staff.
The scope of our study was limited to services offering legal aid. We spoke to two groups: the Court Service Center, which is part of the court, and the Volunteer Lawyers Project, an outside legal service. Our study is limited in that we only spoke to one outside legal aid service (VLP) while there are many more.
Another limitation was our lack of resources. Due to time constraints on this project, we only traveled to places that were close to us and so only spoke to litigants from Lowell Courthouse and from the Brooke Courthouse. We could have gathered more data if we had the time to visit other Court Service Centers in additional courthouses
Our study was also limited in that we began in September and shared our findings in December. In just three short months we conducted a study that could have been more robust with more time. Due to the nature of our class, our research was limited to interviews and our observations, which could have been supplemented with additional methods such as surveys
We only spoke to people who agreed to speak with us. There were some instances in which the CSC or VLP did not ask the litigants to speak with us because they had a sensitive case or were in a highly emotional state due to the status of their case. This means that our data could be skewed positively since we did not experience the full breadth of litigants.
As one of the immediate and easy measures that can be implemented, plan to include posters in every courthouse with information on the court service center and other legal aid organizations, including relevant phone numbers, websites, and hours of service
While the research done by this team uncovered some insights about the pro se litigant’s experience, it barely scratched the surface. Expanding the scope to include legal aid organizations outside of VLP and services beyond what the CSC provides could be fruitful in painting a more holistic picture of the PSL experience with legal aid. A larger pool of interviewees is also needed to substantiate any claims suggested by the research completed as part of this study
An issue that we didn't expect to find in our initial study goals was one about e-filing. As we understand, there is already a significant effort to create policy around its standardization and use. We recommend continuing to explore this issue as it has a vast impact on staff and litigants alike
We recommend interviewing SRLs, who have not yet sought legal aid by screening litigants who are in current proceedings and requesting interviews or having a post-proceedings survey. These litigants can be asked their opinions and insights on why they haven't sought legal aid, or if they are even aware it exists. Quantitative data on SRLs who haven’t sought out help from CSC can then be leveraged to reach out to these litigants
There is a dearth in the literature for the empirical study on outcomes and effectiveness of different ‘access to justice’ interventions, including self-service centers, simplifying forms, and a lot of the recommendations that we made. So we recommend continuing to research the efficacy of these interventions through experiments controlling for different 'access to justice' interventions
It is not always the case that the interviewees shall have sufficient time to answer all the questions. It is advisable to have a quick list of the most important questions ready
It is essential to be specific with the words used to describe or communicate findings. and to look for instances to avoid over-generalizing and miscommunication