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WER Fall 2019 Feature 2
Volume LXX, Issue II

In This Issue:
"Lawyers Making a Difference Through Community Service"

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The Pro Se Project: Narrowing the Justice Gap in Federal Court for Unrepresented Civil Litigants

By: Tiffany Sanders

Tiffany A. Sanders is coordinator of the Pro Se Project, an award-winning access to justice initiative of the U.S. District Court and the Minnesota Chapter of the Federal Bar Association. Tiffany is an experienced civil litigator, she served as an adjunct Legal Writing Instructor at the University of Minnesota Law School for a number of years, and she is a new member of MWL.  

                Tiffany Sanders                   

Pro se litigants squarely test our notion of justice, particularly when they are up against represented parties.  Judges cannot render legal advice, attorneys for the represented party have a fiduciary obligation to their client, and civil procedure is often opaque to the lay person. Yet every day, the underserved of our community – who are typically ill-equipped to appear on their own – bring their most important issues into our courts, seeking justice pro se.

In an effort to narrow the justice gap for unrepresented civil litigants, the U.S. District Court, District of Minnesota, collaborates with the Minnesota Chapter of the Federal Bar Association (FBA) to administer the Pro Se Project.  The goal of the Project is to provide civil pro se litigants who receive a judicial referral with the opportunity to meaningfully consult with volunteer counsel.  These volunteer lawyers make justice more accessible for pro se litigants by focusing their claims or defenses, guiding their cases through the judicial system more efficiently, and in some cases, helping them avoid litigation altogether.  Even if the pro se individual declines representation or refuses to follow a volunteer lawyer’s advice, by having access to counsel, the pro se litigant is more likely to perceive the justice system to be fair.

“Yes, there is a long and arduous road ahead leading to justice, but I will not be traveling it alone. It is difficult for me to adequately express my gratitude, but I want to thank [the Pro Se Project], so much. And please extend my gratitude to the Court for the program that made this representation – and the justice I believe it will secure – possible. I am deeply, truly, thankful.”

-Pro Se Project Plaintiff

The Pro Se Project does not implement strict eligibility guidelines; rather, federal judges, district judges, and magistrate judges exercise discretion in referring pro se litigants to the Project.  Since its inception in May 2009, judges have referred over 750 cases to the Pro Se Project involving a wide range of civil disputes.  Some Pro Se Project litigants have arguable meritorious claims, but low potential damages.  These individuals find themselves unable to retain counsel on a contingency fee basis and unable to afford an attorney on an hourly basis.  The vast majority of litigants the court refers to the Pro Se Project are low-income individuals, and many Pro Se Project participants are faced with additional challenges including disabilities, mental health issues, cultural barriers, and lack of education. 

“Plaintiff has significant mental health issues, and both lawyers were vital in guiding us to settlement. In my view, the case could not have settled without the volunteer [attorney].  The Pro Se Project seems to bring out the best in our profession.”

-Hon. Tony N. Leung, U.S. Magistrate Judge and FBA President

Attorneys’ willingness to volunteer their legal acumen to foster equal justice is the driving force behind the Pro Se Project’s ability to narrow the justice gap for unrepresented civil litigants.  More than 450 lawyers have donated their time and talent to enable the Pro Se Project to serve well in excess of 1,400 pro se litigants.  While assisting the underserved, savvy practitioners have leveraged their Pro Se Project participation to gain legal experience, make connections, and improve the legal community.  While Pro Se Project volunteers are not obligated to represent pro se litigants, many do with some arguing their first motion or trying their first case in federal court through the Pro Se Project.  Other volunteers have taken advantage of Pro Se Project consultations to improve their skills in establishing rapport with clients, managing clients’ expectations, valuing cases, and negotiating.  And volunteer lawyers have utilized Pro Se Project cases to collaborate with other attorneys in mentorships and other developmental opportunities – all while providing much needed legal assistance and enhancing access to justice. 

“Although the verdict was for the defense, there was a victory in favor of providing a voice to those who would not otherwise have a way to be meaningfully heard. I felt so fortunate to be able to be a part of [litigant]’s representation, and the trial truly brought home to me, in a heartfelt way, the value that the Pro Se Project brings to the Court and towards leveling the playing field of justice.”

-Kirstin D. Kanski, Pro Se Project Volunteer Attorney

For a decade, the Pro Se Project has made significant differences in individuals’ lives, affected positive change in our community, and assisted our federal court in the administration of justice.  Highlights of Pro Se Project case outcomes include:

·Changing Hennepin County Adult Detention Center’s procedures for detaining adults with mental health issues;

·Advancing Minnesota’s Muslim inmate population in their free exercise of religion by making halal-certified meals available in Minnesota Department of Corrections facilities; and

·Providing representation to more than 700 sex offenders in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, enabling them to challenge the constitutionality of their civil commitments.

To learn more about the award-winning Pro Se Project, or to volunteer, contact Tiffany A. Sanders at or 612.965.3711.

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