How Effective Is Assisted Self-Help?

We know that a significant proportion of litigants across Canada are choosing, for a variety of reasons, to represent themselves in court proceedings. Dr. Julie MacFarlane and numerous others have extensively explored this continuing trend. What is less known, or perhaps unknown is whether existing resources designed to assist self-representing litigants (SRLs) are effective in providing support to those litigants.

Across the country, self-help services for SRLs are available through a combination of court and community-based service providers. In Manitoba, self-help services are not available at the courts; rather, the courts refer SRLs to community-based services like Legal Help Centre, Community Legal Education Association and the University Law Centre.

Are these self-help services for SRLs an effective means to bridge the gaps that exist in access to justice across the country? Where do those service providers see the gaps? What more, if anything, is needed?

New research from the American Bar Association, released earlier this month, looks at these very questions. More than 500 self-help centres across the U.S. were surveyed, with responses provided by 222 centres in 28 states.

Survey results indicate that these centres are generally low in staff numbers and rely heavily upon volunteers, including lawyers, college students, paralegals and community members. Nearly half of the centres offered services in two or more languages, with Spanish the most common after English.

In terms of the services provided by self-help centres, the survey found:

Most self-help centers (82%) provide some type of in-person services (82%), hard copy support (82%) and web-based information (71%). More than half of the self-help centers provide referrals to lawyer referral services (62%) and telephone assistance (55%).[i]

In person services provided include in person support, mediation or settlement assistance, workshops and assistance (but not representation) in court.

Regardless of the kind of service provided, the area of law in which most supports are provided is family law, as illustrated below:[ii]


Where centres were unable to provide assistance to those seeking support, the reasons varied:

Out of the 222 surveyed, 162 provided an explanation for why their center was occasionally unable to assist people. Eighty-one percent indicated that they turned people away because litigants’ matters were too complicated or their case types were not served by the center (see Fig. 18). Forty-seven percent of those who provided an explanation indicated that the volume of customers exceeded the center’s capacity to help. Twenty-seven percent cited county/jurisdiction limitations. And, 8% cited income limitations.[iii]

The survey asked whether customers would benefit from limited scope, or unbundled legal services. Most indicated that while their customers could benefit from such legal services, relatively few would be able to afford limited scope legal services at going rates.

The report concludes that

…self-help centers are reaching their target customer base, being those of limited resources. We see that most respondents reported being able to assist most of their customers, but a subset of their customers’ legal needs was too complicated and/or their case types were not served by the center. Therefore, more work needs to be done to efficiently identify those who would most benefit from self-help assistance and those who are in need of other services.…Self-help centers may be able to play a role in channeling such populations to limited scope representation or full representation attorneys, if appropriate, while freeing up center resources for the customers who most need that type of assistance.[iv]

I would be most interested to see similar data from Canadian service providers; if you know of any comparable Canadian data, please provide details in the comments.


[i] The Self-Help Center Census: A National Survey, American Bar Association, Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services, August 2014, accessed August 26, 2014 at:,page 11.

[ii] Ibid., page 16.

[iii] Ibid., page 18.

[iv] Ibid., page 27.


  1. The issue in my mind is less about the identification of those who could use self-help, and more about how the legal community can properly and efficiently facilitate this help.

    Ideally we would see more government initiatives taking the lead here. There are some government documents, but they are very, very limited. I suspect we will see more development of help “packages” or training programs to better benefit from economies of scale and avoid duplication of efforts. It’s the only way to impart the knowledge and experience lawyers have in an cost-effective manner.