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.
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.•