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One clerk’s self-help center, many ways of getting assistance

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LCLAS Logo“One of the beautiful parts of the model is that any attorney in the courthouse can stop by at any time and contribute as much as they like for as long as they want.”

Andrew Banyai, executive director of the Lee County Legal Aid Society, describes that as one of the advantages of the program the society runs with Clerk of Court Linda Doggett’s office.

Doggett said the partnership came from a desire to have a wide range of services and options for pro se parties.

The center combines a multitude of services that are traditional and new: traditional legal aid and pro bono work with 15-25 minute consultations; online TurboTax style Q&A programs to help pro se parties fill out forms; clerk assistance in registering to file forms and look up court records; and providing information about how the legal system works.

“In my opinion, taking the best ideas created either by statute or Supreme Court rules, that’s what gets it done,” Doggett said. “We point them to the court’s website, we make sure they know where that is, where the statutes are, where the forms are, get them registered, and make appointments with legal aid.

Not all clerk self-help offices have available attorneys to help pro se parties, but Doggett said she likes that capability because she finds clients frequently have issues that require legal advice from a lawyer. Banyai said the collaboration works well.

“The concept evolved while we were conducting consultations in Linda’s Self-Help Center at the Lee County Courthouse. Her clerks frequently encounter residents with legal questions, and while her employees would like to help litigants as much as they can, they must be cautious about crossing the threshold into giving legal advice. So, there are many good questions they are just not allowed to answer,” Banyai said.

The result is the society placing at least one attorney, with a support staffer, and usually at least one other attorney on Tuesday afternoons from 1 to 5 p.m., and twice monthly sessions on a weeknight and Saturday at other venues. Plus, attorneys are encouraged to stop by and help as a way of doing pro bono. Attorneys provide 15 to 25-minute sessions with the parties and a second session if needed.

And sometimes, a volunteer attorney winds up taking a party as a pro bono client.

“The justice of their case may be compelling, even where the financial result is not. We have seen such cases snapped up by volunteers during the clinic, and an in-office consultation is set up on the spot for pro bono representation,” Banyai said. “This allows attorneys to effectively interview potential pro bono opportunities and select the precise case they find the most compelling….

“We’re combining all of this with regular seminars on litigating issues common in pro se matters, such as evictions, judgment collection, family law, and many more. It’s a whole ecosystem with the Self-Help Center at its heart. We think it’s valuable and highly replicable.”

Last year lawyers working with the program performed 619 client consultations while the Self Help Center assisted 1,706 people. With volunteer attorneys dropping in to help, “it is not unusual for someone to walk in and find five lawyers ready to have a discussion about their case,” Banyai said.

And perhaps there is another, unexpected benefit.

“We also usually have at least one legal intern present. The breadth of the educational opportunities provided by watching eight consecutive consultations from multiple collaborating experienced lawyers on a broad range of topics is, if I may say so, kind of staggering,” he said. “When interns come to the Self-Help Center, we tend to retain them for a long time.”

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