By Grace Yurish

In the New Hampshire justice system, a significant challenge looms as a majority of litigants must navigate the legal process on their own. Nearly 85 percent of cases in the circuit courts feature at least one unrepresented party,1 forcing the people of New Hampshire to enter a complex process while already under immense stress.

Most pro se litigants are faced with economic hardships, limiting their access to legal representation. New Hampshire Legal Assistance (NHLA) Executive Director Sarah Mattson Dustin articulates the challenges faced by these individuals.

“It’s people who are struggling to meet their basic needs,” she says. “They’re struggling to pay for housing, to afford food, prescription medication, gas. Those are the folks for whom it’s really going to be impossible to pay for legal services because they’re struggling just to meet the needs of their day-to-day existence.”

The 2021 civil needs assessment conducted by the New Hampshire Judicial Branch’s Access to Justice Commission2 shed light on the origins of many common civil cases – poverty, housing, family, domestic violence, and debt collection are recurring legal challenges often confronted by low-income litigants. Organizations like 603 Legal Aid (603LA), NHLA, and the Disability Rights Center (DRC) work hand in hand to provide support to thousands of people seeking guidance in these situations. Despite commendable collaborative efforts from these organizations, many individuals still find it challenging to secure legal representation at low or no cost.

“Civil legal aid in general is understaffed,” says 603LA Deputy Director Emma Sisti. “Because we’re understaffed and under-resourced, there are chunks of cases that we are just not able to provide direct representation for.”

One in five New Hampshire residents qualify for free legal aid based on their income.2 However, many can’t get that help. Sisti shares that in 2023, 684 cases were rejected due to a lack of resources. The Justice Index by the National Center for Access to Justice further underscores the gravity of the situation, revealing that New Hampshire has less than one legal aid attorney for every 10,000 people living in poverty.3

“There are just far too few staff to meet the enormous demands for the work that we do,” Mattson Dustin says. “It is also true that there are some people who don’t know that free and low-cost legal services exist and don’t reach out for help.”

One major initiative put in place to increase options for representation is HB 1343, also known as the Paraprofessional Pilot Program. The pilot, which took effect on January 1, 2023, allows paralegals to represent qualifying litigants in court with attorney supervision. Currently, the program is permitted to operate in three locations: Manchester, Berlin, and Franklin, in the district and family divisions. The pilot is limited by case type and most frequently covers landlord/tenant, domestic violence, stalking cases, and family law proceedings.

When the pilot first started, there were only four states in the country that had done something like this. Now, 16 states have implemented or are considering similar programs. So far in New Hampshire, 11 cases have been handled by paraprofessionals in the courtroom. This program has given more litigants the chance to receive counsel in some capacity, so they are not completely alone through the process.

“It’s really been a transformative initiative that uses a responsible ethical model of attorney supervision to expand access to services by paraprofessionals,” Mattson Dustin says. “We are thrilled about it and have actively participated and anticipate growing our participation over the next several years that the pilot is extended.”

Even when litigants are unable to receive representation, there are resources and support available to help unrepresented parties feel confident in the courtroom. The New Hampshire Bar Association (NHBA) has resources for those who need low-cost legal assistance. The NHBA Lawyer Referral Service Modest Means program (Modest Means) allows low-income litigants to be represented by panelist attorneys at a reduced rate. Additionally, New Hampshire Free Legal Answers and LawLine both provide avenues for the public to seek free advice from anonymous attorneys. These additional resources are a great way for lawyers to provide guidance and support to unrepresented parties in the state.

“These organizations are giving a voice and power to individuals to feel confident that they are in charge, and that they have control over the outcome because you’re giving them the tools that they need to be successful,” Sisti says.

But without direct representation, pro se litigants face a considerable barrier as they battle their legal issues. One of the challenges is that they are held to the same standard as attorneys. Attorneys have years of education and training for their work, and the average person may have trouble understanding what they need for their case. Despite this, they must follow the same rules and protocols, and are treated the same as legal professionals. This creates an intimidating experience, especially for those with no prior exposure to the justice system.

“When we talk about access to justice, it’s so important to have that piece where we’re providing advice for things like, ‘where do you go in the courtroom? How do you address the judge? Do you stand?’” Sisti says. “All of those things are aspects of a case that an attorney knows inherently. A pro se litigant does not, and yet they’re required to follow the same set of rules and they’re held to the same standard.”

Mattson Dustin concurs, stating, “Our legal system historically was built by lawyers for lawyers and so you have procedural complexity, which is to say that people don’t necessarily know what forms to fill out or what deadlines they must meet. You also have substantive complexity, so people may not understand what their rights are or may think they have certain rights when they actually don’t.”

Other barriers, including legal language complexity and unfamiliarity with individual rights and court processes pose challenges, particularly for individuals with limited English proficiency, poor reading skills, or disabilities. Despite available resources, individuals may not be aware of their existence or how to access them.

“It’s really important for people to feel like they are being treated by the legal system in a way that is not going to judge them because they are not a lawyer,” Sisti says. “The legal system should be there to serve individuals and it shouldn’t matter if you’re represented or not.”

To address these barriers, the New Hampshire Judicial Branch secured nearly $1.2 million in funds from the American Rescue Plan Act. The New Hampshire Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission and the Office of Access and Community Engagement (OACE) are using these funds to implement various initiatives to improve access to justice for the people of the Granite State.

OACE Manager Irena Goddard will be managing the implementation of the different projects.

One of the first projects to be rolled out is form simplification. The goal is to simplify several sets of forms, so they are written in plain language and comply with federal readability guidelines established by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The project will also include training and resources on best practices and techniques to enable the Judicial Branch to produce ADA-compliant/plain language forms going forward.

“Right now, there’s a form for everything,” says Goddard. “We want to make the forms much easier to complete using natural language and not legal speak. If they are completed correctly, then they are accepted. If they are not completed correctly, then the process takes much longer. That’s project number one.”

To improve language access for non-English speakers, the language access project will tackle expanding translated online resources, making them readily available in various languages.

A community navigator program is also being implemented to assist individuals with that first step into the legal system. Many people don’t know when they have a legal issue. In this program, knowledgeable community volunteers will help in determining whether a legal issue is present and then guiding them to the next steps.

“We have engaged with Legal Link, and they are providing consultancy services for this,” Goddard says. “This is something that has been rolled out in other states and has worked reasonably well, so we’re doing something that has been successful in other parts of the country.”

To assist individuals in the court process, a virtual service center will be established. This program, also through the support of volunteers, will meet court-involved people where they are and provide legal information support services. Through this program, litigants will be able to receive more in-depth assistance with paperwork, court processes, and what they can expect in their cases.

A legal navigator nexus will significantly improve the technology currently hosting legal resources, making it easier for non-attorneys to access information pertaining to their legal needs. This nexus will create a user-friendly experience, allowing them to search key words to generate specific results, filtering out unrelated information.

To determine the applicability, effectiveness, and sustainability of the initiatives, data collection and reporting will be employed. This will help to identify what is working, and to establish what improvements can be made. The goal of all these initiatives is to give pro se litigants the tools they need to feel comfortable representing themselves.

“We’re not alone in this,” Goddard says. “There are other states who are going through similar things and we’re learning from each other because we want to provide the best service that we can, as efficiently as we can.”

Goddard continues: “For attorneys, this is their full-time job. For people who are self-represented, they may have a full-time job and it’s not this. We need to make sure that the information is available to them in different formats, in an easily
digestible manner, so they can do the ‘catch up.’”

As knowledgeable legal practitioners, there are many ways to assist narrowing the justice gap. Both Sisti and Mattson Dustin urge attorneys to sign up to receive pro bono cases through 603LA. Through them, lawyers can provide representation for litigants dealing with immensely stressful legal issues.

Monetary donations to legal aid organizations are also extremely helpful in allowing them to expand their resources for the unrepresented litigants in New Hampshire.

Other ways to give back include signing up as a panelist through the Modest Means program, volunteering for LawLine, and responding to questions through Free Legal Answers. These opportunities can a make profound change and increase access to justice for the people who need it the most.