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Ghostwriting: Filling in the Gaps of Pro Se Prisoners' Access to the Courts


Ira P. Robbins


American University - Washington College of Law

June 4, 2010

Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics, Vol. 23, No. 2, pp. 271-321, 2010
American University, WCL Research Paper No. 2010-17

Abstract:     
Compared with other litigants, pro se prisoners are at an inherent disadvantage when they try to vindicate their rights. They lack many of the resources enjoyed by non-prisoner litigants. They have limited finances and limited access to legal-research materials. Even if they had such access, their illiteracy would lessen its effectiveness. Moreover, many attorneys are unwilling or unable to undertake full representation of prisoner litigants. As a result, pro se prisoners struggle to navigate the complex legal system, often losing their cases on procedural grounds before ever reaching a decision on the merits.

This Article argues that, in order to provide pro se prisoners with the access to the courts that law and justice require, attorneys (and sometimes non-attorneys) should be permitted to ghostwrite pleadings for them - that is, to draft pleadings that prisoners will then file pro se. Attorneys who may otherwise be reluctant to represent prisoner litigants as counsel of record might still be amenable to providing services in this limited way. Limited-scope representation - or “unbundled legal services” - is not an anomaly. Indeed, most states accept the practice in at least some contexts, and the American Bar Association recently gave its stamp of approval to ghostwriting. Nevertheless, many courts and commentators contend that ghostwriting by attorneys is unethical, that it gives pro se litigants an unfair advantage (because their pleadings are entitled to judicial benevolence), and that it encourages the unauthorized practice of law. Addressing these concerns, this Article considers the various forms that ghostwriting could take - i.e., whether ghostwriting attorneys should be required to disclose their names, the fact of their assistance, or the nature of their assistance - and concludes that ghostwriting should be allowed without any disclosure of attorney assistance at all. Indeed, disclosing such assistance may, in some instances, actually violate ethical rules. While ghostwriting likely constitutes the practice of law and might justifiably be rejected in other contexts, this Article recommends that courts and bar associations endorse the practice of ghostwriting for pro se prisoners, to give these disadvantaged litigants a more even playing field on which to challenge alleged violations of their constitutional rights.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 52

Keywords: Ghostwriting, Prisoners, Pleading, Pro Se Litigation, Access to the Courts, Legal Ethics, Unbundled Legal Services, Unauthorized Practice of Law, Attorney of Record, Limited-Scope Representation

JEL Classification: K10, K14, K19, K40, K41, K42, K49

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Date posted: June 4, 2010 ; Last revised: August 23, 2010

Suggested Citation

Robbins, Ira P., Ghostwriting: Filling in the Gaps of Pro Se Prisoners' Access to the Courts (June 4, 2010). Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics, Vol. 23, No. 2, pp. 271-321, 2010; American University, WCL Research Paper No. 2010-17. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1620464

Contact Information

Ira P. Robbins (Contact Author)
American University - Washington College of Law ( email )
4801 Massachusetts Avenue N.W.
Washington, DC 20016
United States
202-274-4235 (Phone)
202-274-4130 (Fax)
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