Helping Inmates Plead their Case

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Inmates filing civil rights-violation lawsuits need paperwork that is clearer, more comprehensive and more relevant, argue the authors of a forthcoming study that aims to make inmate litigation more fair.

In 2015, inmates filed nearly 27,000 civil rights actions in federal court using a complaint form based on a model first developed in the 1970s—a document that can be confusing to people not familiar with the law and can diminish their chances of winning a lawsuit—write Richard Frankel of the Drexel University Kline School of Law and Alistair Newbern of Vanderbilt University Law School. They recommend several revisions to the current form, including:

  • Not requiring a plaintiff to bring up his or her litigation history if a non-prisoner plaintiff would not be required to do so under the same circumstances.
  • Removing language that encourages the plaintiff to “briefly” state the facts, and instead asking them to provide as much detail and context as possible.
  • Eliminating a form that asks plaintiffs to “state the legal grounds for their claim,” which is of little help to courts but likely confusing to people with no legal experience.

“The fact of incarceration raises additional hurdles for pro se (representing oneself in court) prisoners. Many prisons have drastically curtailed or eliminated their law libraries, removing resources that could help prisoners navigate the legal system,” the authors write. “Even where such resources are available, they are often still inaccessible to prisoners, whose literacy and language skill levels fall well below those of the general population.”

The study is forthcoming in the Washington University Law Review. It is available online HERE.

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