Judicial Assistance For Litigants Without Lawyers?

The D.C. Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure recently called out a D.C. Superior Court judge seeking senior status for “discourteous and impatient treatment of litigants.”  The Commission was created in 1970 to oversee the conduct of D.C.’s judges.   Reading the Commission’s findings of that investigation, LPR is reminded of the court’s revised Judicial Code of Conduct adopted in 2012.  The new version allows judges of that court to provide limited assistance to litigants who represent themselves.

Gladys Kessler

Gladys Kessler (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to a December 4, 2013 post on BLT: The Blog of LegalTimes, titled D.C. Judge Reproached for ‘Inappropriate’ Comments, D.C. Superior Court Judge Natalia Combs Greene’s request for senior status appointment following her retirement was met with “numerous” complaints about her “rude” and “intimidating” manner towards litigants.  Although the Commission ultimately recommended Judge Greene for senior status, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler, the Commission’s chairperson, detailed Judge Greene’s courtroom demeanor in a November 13, 2013 letter, and suggested limitations on her subsequent appointment:

Though the Commission found many aspects of Judge Combs Greene’s performance over the past 15 years to be most favorable, the Commission would be remiss if it did not address the serious issue of the Judge’s demeanor, particularly in one assignment. . . . It is clear from our review of the cases brought to our attention, that Judge Combs Greene’s demeanor was oftentimes less than courteous, and on occasion even rude and intimidating; moreover some of her comments during those proceedings were exceedingly inappropriate. This causes the Commission great concern.

The Commission is aware of the enormous challenges judges face while presiding in high volume Courts such as Landlord & Tenant. Despite the frustration a judge may feel, a raised voice, impatient tone, or off-handed remark only makes the situation more stressful and tense for the litigants and more difficult for the judge. . . . Every litigant deserves to be treated with the utmost respect.

LPR applauds the Commission’s public acknowledgment of litigant complaints and for not sweeping them under the rug.  LPR is also encouraged by the revisions to Rule 2.6 of D.C. Court’s Code of Judicial Conduct, allowing judges to assist litigants who represent themselves.  Comment 1A to Rule 2.6 explains the scope of permissible assistance (emphasis added):

[1A] The judge has an affirmative role in facilitating the ability of every person who has a legal interest in a proceeding to be fairly heard. Pursuant to Rule 2.2, the judge should not give self-represented litigants an unfair advantage or create an appearance of partiality to the reasonable person; however, in the interest of ensuring fairness and access to justice, judges should make reasonable accommodations that help litigants who are not represented by counsel to understand the proceedings and applicable procedural requirements, secure legal assistance, and be heard according to law. In some circumstances, particular accommodations for self- represented litigants may be required by decisional or other law. Steps judges may consider in facilitating the right to be heard include, but are not limited to, (1) providing brief information about the proceeding and evidentiary and foundational requirements, (2) asking neutral questions to elicit or clarify information, (3) modifying the traditional order of taking evidence, (4) refraining from using legal jargon, (5) explaining the basis for a ruling, and (6) making referrals to any resources available to assist the litigant in the preparation of the case.

While not all courts have adopted a similar provision, representing yourself in the D.C. Courts may now be more user-friendly.

You’ve got options.  The Center for Legal Practice Reform can help you navigate the attorney/client relationship and level the playing field.  Call LPR today for a free consultation – (301) 351-7970.

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