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February 2006

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


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 successful.”

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 unsolvable maze.”

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 significant.

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 said.

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 said.

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.