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Clark County self-help center helps pro se litigants

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When pro se litigants find themselves in a courthouse for the first time, there’s a good chance they aren’t quite sure what to do. That includes knowing where to go, who to talk to, or even how to dress and behave in a court setting.

In the Clark County courthouse in Jeffersonville, just across the river from Louisville, a self-help center for pro se litigants in civil cases has been operational since late May. The second phase of the project, adding computer equipment and software for litigants to prepare and print forms for filing, as well as the placement of a sign donated by The Estopinal Group to recognize supporters, was celebrated Dec. 14.

That celebration included Indiana Court of Appeals Judge Melissa May and Clark Circuit Judge Daniel Moore as the keynote speakers. At least 60 attorney volunteers, court staff, and other supporters of the center including Jeffersonville Mayor Tom Galligan and Charlestown Mayor Bob Hall were present.

Judge May said when she first heard about the idea for the center she was intrigued, and she called Judge Moore to learn more about it. As chair of the Indiana Pro Bono Commission, she was also able to help the center receive a grant from the Indiana Bar Foundation.

Because many people don’t know how to find a lawyer, let alone what questions to ask when they do have one, and because others prefer to not hire a lawyer, this center can help address a range of needs, Judge May explained.pro se

As a judge, it can be difficult when litigants come before her without representation, she said. Likewise, it is not always easy for attorneys to represent clients in court when the other party is pro se.

Judge Moore said the center had a “simple goal to provide service, provide direction, and provide guidance to those who walk into the courthouse.”

The idea for the center started about a year ago, said J. Mark Robinson, managing attorney of the New Albany office of Indiana Legal Services Inc.

“We started as a pretty small group with the idea we could provide pamphlets and some direction in the courthouse,” said ILS attorney Marianne Conrad. In addition to attorneys, the group included accountants, clergy, and other members of the community.

Clark County Bar Association President Thomas R. Thomas Sr. of Jeffersonville said when people come to the courthouse, they often ask the clerk or public defender for help. Indeed, the door to the public defender’s office is surrounded by signs that say there is no public phone available and that it is not a public space.

To get the center going, organizers worked with the Legal Aid Society of Louisville which, like ILS, is part of the Legal Service Corporation. Organizers for the Clark County center were impressed by what the Louisville agency had done in terms of helping self-represented litigants. That organization has a self-help center open four days a week in their offices.

Like the Legal Aid Society of Louisville, the clinic in Jeffersonville works with law students at the Louis D. Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville.

To help pro se litigants, a volunteer attorney will supervise one or two students from the Louisville law school on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. The students conduct interviews with the litigants on their legal concerns.

During a recent session that Robinson supervised, litigants’ concerns included questions about the next step in the appellate process for a case as pro se, a contract question, a question about employment where the litigant’s hours had been reduced, an immigration question, a name change inquiry, and a litigant who wanted more information about parenting time guidelines for spending time with a child during the holiday season.

Robinson added that the students did a great job of breaking the ice, explaining what the center can do and possibly most important, he said, what the center is not.

“We are not here to form an attorney-client relationship or represent the client,” he said.

What they are there to do is offer information in the form of a self-help brochure; help litigants determine which forms they need to fill out for their particular issue and how to file those in the court; and explain how they can request legal representation through ILS or the local pro bono district. If the individual can afford to pay a lawyer, the center has available a list of attorneys in the area. The desired end result is that those coming to the center will be more informed than when they first got there.

“I have yet to have someone who doesn’t verbally or even nonverbally express their appreciation for the help they’ve received from the center,” Robinson said.

Since the center first started, the 18 volunteer attorneys who rotate shifts and the law students they supervise have helped 45 to 60 people every month.

“Law schools do not teach students how to interview a client,” Judge Moore said. “These students now understand how interviewing skills can be useful.”

One volunteer, J. Spencer Harmon of Stites & Harbison in Jeffersonville, said he got involved this summer because he read about it in the local newspaper. He hadn’t done much pro bono work since law school but he wanted to help people and saw the center as a good opportunity. He now volunteers once or twice a month.

“There’s a great need,” he said. “Many people don’t understand the legal system. … They show up with their papers and ask, ‘What do I do?’”

“When they come in, they are often scared to death,” Judge Moore said. “This has a calming effect.”

The self-help center is not affiliated with any other similar programs in Indiana.

Pro se litigants around the state can also find information on appearing in court without a lawyer on the Indiana Supreme Court’s website, http://www.in.gov/judiciary/selfservice. The site includes videos, forms, and a list of what court staff can and cannot do for litigants.•

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  1. Some are above the law in Indiana. Some lined up with Lodges have controlled power in the state since the 1920s when the Klan ruled Indiana. Consider the comments at this post and note the international h.q. in Indianapolis. http://www.theindianalawyer.com/human-trafficking-rising-in-indiana/PARAMS/article/42468. Brave journalists need to take this child torturing, above the law and antimarriage cult on just like The Globe courageously took on Cardinal Law. Are there any brave Hoosier journalists?

  2. I am nearing 66 years old..... I have no interest in contacting anyone. All I need to have is a nationality....a REAL Birthday...... the place U was born...... my soul will never be at peace. I have lived my life without identity.... if anyone can help me please contact me.

  3. This is the dissent discussed in the comment below. See comments on that story for an amazing discussion of likely judicial corruption of some kind, the rejection of the rule of law at the very least. http://www.theindianalawyer.com/justices-deny-transfer-to-child-custody-case/PARAMS/article/42774#comment

  4. That means much to me, thank you. My own communion, to which I came in my 30's from a protestant evangelical background, refuses to so affirm me, the Bishop's courtiers all saying, when it matters, that they defer to the state, and trust that the state would not be wrong as to me. (LIttle did I know that is the most common modernist catholic position on the state -- at least when the state acts consistent with the philosophy of the democrat party). I asked my RCC pastor to stand with me before the Examiners after they demanded that I disavow God's law on the record .... he refused, saying the Bishop would not allow it. I filed all of my file in the open in federal court so the Bishop's men could see what had been done ... they refused to look. (But the 7th Cir and federal judge Theresa Springmann gave me the honor of admission after so reading, even though ISC had denied me, rendering me a very rare bird). Such affirmation from a fellow believer as you have done here has been rare for me, and that dearth of solidarity, and the economic pain visited upon my wife and five children, have been the hardest part of the struggle. They did indeed banish me, for life, and so, in substance did the the Diocese, which treated me like a pariah, but thanks to this ezine ... and this is simply amazing to me .... because of this ezine I am not silenced. This ezine allowing us to speak to the corruption that the former chief "justice" left behind, yet embedded in his systems when he retired ... the openness to discuss that corruption (like that revealed in the recent whistleblowing dissent by courageous Justice David and fresh breath of air Chief Justice Rush,) is a great example of the First Amendment at work. I will not be silenced as long as this tree falling in the wood can be heard. The Hoosier Judiciary has deep seated problems, generational corruption, ideological corruption. Many cases demonstrate this. It must be spotlighted. The corrupted system has no hold on me now, none. I have survived their best shots. It is now my time to not be silent. To the Glory of God, and for the good of man's law. (It almost always works that way as to the true law, as I explained the bar examiners -- who refused to follow even their own statutory law and violated core organic law when banishing me for life -- actually revealing themselves to be lawless.)

  5. to answer your questions, you would still be practicing law and its very sad because we need lawyers like you to stand up for the little guy who have no voice. You probably were a threat to them and they didnt know how to handle the truth and did not want anyone to "rock the boat" so instead of allowing you to keep praticing they banished you, silenced you , the cowards that they are.

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