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Help Desks for People Without Lawyers
“It is important to all of us that every citizen, whether educated or not,
have a fair and practical opportunity for their grievances to be heard,” said
Chief Judge Charles Kocoras (N.D. Ill.). That’s why his court, the Northern
District of Illinois, offers a newly created “help desk” where non-lawyers can
get advice from a volunteer attorney.
Similarly, in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Arizona, members
of the clerk of court’s staff take turns offering advice to non-lawyers at a
“self-help center” within the Phoenix courthouse.
“We try to give them the tools to represent themselves,” Clerk of Court Terry
Miller said of the year-old initiative. “So far, it’s been pretty
Navigating the federal court system can be a daunting task for the non-lawyer
involved in a civil case. Courts long have used various methods to make the
process more user-friendly. Now, a few courts offer consultations at the
courthouse with court employees or volunteer lawyers.
“It’s apparent that there was a crying need for such a service,” Kocoras
said. “It is no exaggeration to say that for most lay people, including pro se
filers, the procedural and substantive aspects of the law represent an
When people representing themselves in civil cases visit the federal
courthouse in downtown Chicago, they can make their way to the help desk, open
for most of each court day, and get free advice from a Chicago Bar Association
member. A session might last from a few minutes to a half hour.
Kocoras said an initial benefit is that a pro se litigant “will have an
audience with whom they can share their plight”—an opportunity the judge calls
The non-lawyer contemplating a lawsuit may be advised to seek help from a
city or state agency, or other resource, rather than file suit. “If the problem
described calls for the preparation of a civil complaint, then the attorney at
the help desk can assist or direct the preparation of a complaint in an
appropriate legal form,” Kocoras said.
“The desk should help the court by potentially reducing or eliminating the
need for dismissal of the complaint for reasons of its deficiency, either before
or after a motion is filed by the party being sued,” he added. “This will save
defense counsel’s time and expense, as well as lessening the burdens on the
judge in considering poorly drafted complaints.”
The Chicago Bar Foundation, the charitable arm of the Chicago Bar
Association, supplied the necessary funding for the project.
A far greater percentage of people involved in bankruptcy cases do not have a
lawyer’s help. In Phoenix, the self-help center assists pro se debtors and
creditors from 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, offering them
educational information and the appropriate forms.
“We’ve been able to provide this service at essentially no cost because our
people work at the center on a rotating basis, as part of their routine,” Miller
The bankruptcy court also partnered with the bankruptcy section of the
Arizona State Bar to host a volunteer attorney one day a week to answer basic
questions from litigants who do not have their own lawyer.
“Our efforts are still in their infancy, but we like what we’ve seen,” Miller
In Chicago, Chief Judge Kocoras encouraged other courts to consider similar
projects if funding issues can be resolved.
“I believe such a help desk would be beneficial for other district courts,
particularly those in metropolitan areas,” he said.