District of Columbia Courts
The Commission has a very active Courts Commitee, which works closely with the Chief and Presiding Judges and others to facilitate equal access to the courts. Recent projects include:
- Commission representatives worked closely with the Superior Court to develop a new housing conditions calendar that was launched on April 28, 2010. Previously, tenants did not have a mechanism to easily seek redress for even the most egregious housing code violations and typically had to tolerate terrible conditions while waiting for the landlord to bring a case for possession in the Landlord and Tenant Branch. Now tenants have a "fast–track" mechanism for affirmatively raising housing conditions issues. A DCRA housing inspector is present when the calendar is called so that the court and the parties have direct access to conditions–related information and violations can be resolved expeditiously. The Commission is working with the legal services community to increase awareness and use of the calendar.
- The Commission successfully advocated for revisions to the D.C. Code of Judicial Conduct that clarifies the affirmative role of judges in ensuring the ability of self–represented litigants to be heard and elucidates the types of reasonable accomodations judges can make to assist pre se litigants.
- The Commission worked with the Court to ensure provisions of interpreters in all civil cases. It provided formal comments in March 2009 on the Administrative Order governing provision of interpreters and worked informally with the Court to ensure posting of guidance on the Court's website.
- At the Commission's urging, the Superior Court and Court of Appeals provided training for judges and court personnel on the use of the Language Line. The Commission continues to highlight the importance of translating court orders and other relevant documents into other languages and improving signage for limited–English proficient individuals. The Commission is engaged in ongoing language access efforts and in 2010 wrote a formal letter of support for the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense's Proposed Language Access Standards in State Courts.
- The Commission brought to the Court's attention difficulties with the in forma pauperis (IFP) application and review process. In March 2010, the Court promulgated a new court–wide IFP application for the Civil Division and Family Court. This change has improved consistency in the merit evaluation of IFP applications and made it easier for low–income litigants to seek and obtain fee waivers. The Commission continues to work with the provider community to identify instances when the new review process is not properly followed and relay that information to the Court for additional training. The Commission is also working with the Court of Appeals to try to make its IFP rule and practices consistent with those in Superior Court.
- Representatives of the Commission worked with the Court to promulgate a rule change that eliminated the notarization requirement in Civil Division cases. Previously, litigants were required to sign certain pleadings in front of a notary. This requirement created an unnecessary burden, especially on low–income litigants because of the cost associated with notarization, the dearth of notaries in low–income neighborhoods, and the need to miss work or other obligations to travel to a notary. This change brings the Civil Division in line with other parts of Superior Court, as well as the Court of Appeals, the federal courts and a number of District agencies, which permit litigants to sign under penalty of perjury without notarization.
- Following the serial snow–related court closures in early 2010, the Commission successfully urged the Court to articulate new policies related to weather and other emergencies. This included improving the dissemination of information to affected litigants by placing case re–calendaring information on the Court's website and audio recording.
- The Commission worked with the Court to prominently feature links to LawHelp on its website and kiosks.
- The Commission worked with the Court to remedy problems arising from the District's failure to update the self–support reserve in child–support cases. It drafted an informal sheet for the Court explaining the problems. At the Commission's urging, the Court sent notices to obligors whose child support calculations might have been affected.
- The Commission has worked with the Court to ensure that child support obligors are alerted to modify their child support orders before that are incarcerated. At the Commission's urging, the Court alerted judges hearing criminal matters of the importance of raising child support obligations at the time of sentencing.
- The Commission worked with the Court to examine data on the number and percentage of pro se litigants navigating the court system each year. This data will help to gauge the impact of the Access to Justice funding, as well as the effect of the economic downturn on the number of low–income individuals proceeding without counsel.
- The Commission assisted with planning for the D.C. Court's Resource Center Roundtable in April 2009 and created a bench card with information about each of the Court Pro Se Resource Centers. The Commission also made a presentation at the Court's May 2009 pro se training and is working with the Court's Committee on Access and Fairness to develop another training in spring 2012.
The Courts Committee continually works to identify new areas for reform. In 2011, the Commission researched best practices in other jurisdictions for assisting pro se litigants and produced an extensive memorandum detailing those innovations. As a result of that work, the Commission is examining the expansion of limited scope representation to other areas of the Court. It is also exploring the use of allocution-type interchanges between judges and pro se litigants so that judges have a mechanism to verify that a pro se litigant fully understands the terms and consequences of a settlement before the Court approves it.
In addition, the Courts Committee is working closely with legal services providers to address areas of unmet need. In collaboration with the D.C. Consortium of Legal Services Providers, it facilitated the formation of a Consumer Law Working Group that is examining practices in the Small Claims Branch and Debt Collection Calendar. The Commission is working to implement the recommendations of that working group.