UW Law School Professor Tonya Brito is one of fifteen researchers appointed to the Russell Sage Foundation’s Visiting Scholars program for the 2018–19 academic year.
Working from the foundation headquarters in New York City, Brito will use the opportunity to continue her pioneering study of low-income litigants in child support cases. The study focuses on the experiences of pro se litigants, or those who advocate for themselves in court rather than being represented by a lawyer.
“Many low- and moderate-income people can’t afford a lawyer to represent
them in their cases, whether it’s in civil or criminal court. Unlike in criminal cases, however, there’s no federal constitutional right to counsel in civil cases,” Brito explains. “In many states, the numbers of unrepresented litigants appearing in civil cases is staggering—as high as 80 to 90 percent—and in many cases their opponent has counsel.”
Brito previously won two National Science Foundation awards to conduct field research for the project. She has spent hundreds of hours interviewing judges, court commissioners, lawyers, and litigants, and observing child support enforcement hearings.
According to Brito, “Even though we know that having a lawyer matters, existing research doesn’t tell us why. By following pro se litigants as they navigate the legal system on their own,
my study sheds light on where and how they succeed and fail. The findings will be influential in developing legal assistance interventions that will aid them.”
Since 1907, the Russell Sage Foundation has served as a research center for scholars and journalists in the social and behavioral sciences. Its mission is the improvement of social and living conditions in the United States by promoting research in an interdisciplinary environment and publishing books and a journal. The visiting scholars program provides an opportunity for social scientists to pursue research on essential questions of social, economic, and political life.
Brito is the Law School’s Jefferson Burrus-Bascom Professor of Law and a faculty affiliate with the UW’s Institute for Research on Poverty. She is a nationally known expert on family law, child support, and issues of race, poverty, and social policy, and has served on the Law School faculty since 1997. •
BY CAROL COHEN