Simplified Courts Can't Solve Inequality

Colleen F. Shanahan, Columbia Law School
Anna E. Carpenter, The University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law

This is the author's final version. It has been accepted for publication in Daedalus, published by MIT Press.


State civil courts struggle to handle the volume of cases before them. Litigants in these courts, most of whom are unrepresented, struggle to navigate the courts to solve their problems. This access-to-justice crisis has led to a range of reform efforts and solutions. One type of reform, court simplification, strives to reduce the complexity of procedures and information used by courts to help unrepresented litigants navigate the judicial system. These reforms mitigate but do not solve the symptoms of the larger underlying problem: state civil courts are struggling because they have been stuck with legal cases that arise from the legislative and executive branches’ failure to provide a social safety net in the face of rising inequality. The legal profession and judiciary must step back to question whether the courts should be the branch of government responsible for addressing socioeconomic needs on a case-by-case basis.