We All Need Somebody to Lean On

Ken Liu

          You just call on me brother
          When you need a hand
          We all need somebody to lean on

          - "Lean On Me," Bill Whithers 

Recently I spoke with a woman Ginny (not her real name) who was the victim of bullying and harassment by a neighbor. Ginny couldn’t afford a lawyer but contacted the court to seek a protective order. A magistrate helped her set a hearing, but she was baffled and scared by the byzantine procedures. Was this a civil or criminal proceeding? Was she a party or just a witness? Was she supposed to argue in court? Did she need evidence?

How is the average person on the street supposed to know these answers without any guidance? Yet this scenario is faced by millions of Americans every year throughout courts across the country. For many, the experience can be downright terrifying.

About 30 million people a year go without legal representation in state courts. Not surprisingly, self-represented litigants lose cases at a substantially higher rate than similar individuals who are represented by counsel. Domestic violence victims who don’t have representation have a 50% lower chance of obtaining a protective order. It is estimated that even though 80% of tenants in eviction proceedings have a legal defense, only 8% of unrepresented tenants successfully raised a defense.

To help address this justice gap, advocates are promoting a relatively new option for helping self-represented litigants – legal navigators.  "Legal navigators" are non-lawyers who are trained to help self-represented litigants navigate the legal system. They don’t provide legal advice, but provide the incredibly valuable service of helping people figure out, for example, what legal forms to use, how to file them, what to expect and how to conduct oneself in a hearing, etc.

Legal navigators are, in short -- somebody to lean on, a helping hand. They are a friend who understands the system and can point people in the right direction.  In fact, their roles sound a lot like what Christian Legal Aid clinics do!  Given the near impossibility of recruiting enough legal aid attorneys to meet the demand, hiring legal navigators may be an optimal, though incomplete, solution to help meet the justice crisis.

Christian Legal Aid clinics, whose mission is to be a friend to those in need, may want to seriously consider recruiting and training legal navigators to join their team.  (For more information, see the resources below.) 


The Role of Non-Lawyer Navigators - Mary McClymont, senior fellow at Georgetown University Law Center's Justice Lab discusses the concept of legal navigators.

Nonlawyer Navigators in State Courts: An Emerging Consensus Full Report (pdf) - A comprehensive survey of 23 programs in 15 states using non-lawyer navigators to assist self-represented litigants (SRLs) through the court system on basic civil legal problems, by the Justice Lab at Georgetown Law School.

The study found that navigator programs help to:

  • enhance the effectiveness of, and build public trust in, the courts;
  • facilitate access to justice for SRLs by helping them understand and navigate their cases;
  • allow lawyers to focus on their core expertise; 

The programs have been championed by many stakeholders, including: judges, state access to justice commissions, legal aid leaders, bar foundations, and court staff. They have successfully helped meet the SRL demand without major regulatory reform or rule changes.

Navigators work on a range of case types, such as: family, housing, debt collection, domestic violence, conservatorship, and elder abuse.  Well-trained and appropriately supervised navigators can perform a wide array of tasks, such as:

  • help SRLs find their way around the court
  • get practical information and referrals to other sources of assistance
  • complete court paperwork
  • accompany SRLs to court to provide emotional support
  • help answer judges' factual questions
  • even resolve matters with opposing counsel (while being mindful of rules against nonlawyers providing legal advice)

The Self-Represented Litigation Network - A leading voice in the national movement for 100% access to civil justice, supports justice system professionals focused on the question of how best to reform all aspects of the legal system (courts, legal aid, the bar, and non-legal partners) so that self-represented litigants experience the legal system as a consumer-oriented environment guided by the principles of equal protection and due process.