The Catholic University of America

L-R: Veryl V. Miles, dean, Columbus School of Law; Hon. Eric T. Washington, chief judge, D.C. Court of Appeals; Hon. Fred B. Ugast, CUA law Judge-in-Residence and chief judge (retired), D.C. Superior Court.

Law Students are Challenged to Help Alleviate Pro se Representation

Thousands of Americans walk into courtrooms every day with no lawyer to advocate for them. They lack the money, the language skills or the connections to retain professional legal help, and are forced to stumble through evictions, foreclosures, domestic violence charges and many other life-altering legal matters with no trained guidance or counsel.

It is not only a problem for the indigent, but is spreading through the middle class as well. "This ever-rising tide of litigants without lawyers is really a national phenomenon," said Hon. Eric T. Washington, chief judge, D.C. Court of Appeals.

Judge Washington, who began his second term as chief judge this year, was invited to deliver the Catholic University Columbus School of Law's 41st annual Pope John XXIII Lecture on Sept. 15th. He titled his remarks "Access to Justice - An Elusive Goal." As the ranking jurist on the highest court in the District of Columbia, Washington said he has noticed that D.C. residents are even more vulnerable than most other citizens to the hazards of pro se legal representation, i.e., self-representation without a lawyer in a court proceeding. He likened the practice to performing a surgical procedure upon oneself at home, using only a textbook for a guide.

"This trend is leading to an erosion of the public trust that our courthouses are open to all," said Washington.

In D.C. and across the country, there has been a growing trend toward self-help legal clinics. Unrepresented litigants can walk in and are offered some access to legal texts and other helpful materials, but the process stops well short of supplying them with an actual attorney in court.

Given the current economic climate-which has resulted in closed courthouses in California and furloughed judges in Missouri-the judge believes that more than ever, the willingness of lawyers to perform pro bono service will make the final difference in putting meaning behind the words that close the Pledge of Allegiance, "…and justice for all."

"We really need your help," Washington told the mostly-student, standing room only audience in the Slowinski Courtroom. "All over the world, millions of people long for our system of justice. Unfortunately, millions of our citizens long for it, too."

The Pope John XXIII lecture honors the pontificate in the early 1960s of Pope John XXIII, a pontiff who was widely expected to be little more than a seat-warmer but who instead rocked Catholicism to its foundation by supporting the ecumenical changes brought about by Vatican II.

Washington invoked the namesake of his address to urge CUA law students to similarly reject the status quo, and to consider today's flood of unrepresented litigants unacceptable and un-American.

"I would challenge all of you today to do whatever you can," exhorted the judge. "Look for that person who needs a friendly face, who needs help."