The self-help legal center in the Delaware County Courthouse has found that individuals are becoming pro se litigants for two primary reasons — they believe they can do a better job representing themselves in court, or they do not have the money to hire an attorney.
Judges prefer parties appearing in their courtrooms to have counsel, and attorneys advise litigants to get representation rather than navigating the legal system alone. However, the reality is individuals are filing cases and making arguments on their own. According to data from the annual Indiana Judicial Service Report, civil cases filed by pro se litigants rose from 116,222 in 2016 to 141,104 through the third quarter of 2018.
“I think it’s unrealistic to think we can ever eliminate pro se,” said Charles Dunlap, executive director of the Indiana Bar Foundation. “It’s always going to be there.”
Into the civil legal pro se arena, the Coalition for Court Access recently launched the website Indianalegalhelp.org. Now, Hoosiers needing help with a divorce, child custody issue, eviction or other civil legal problems have a new place to find answers and additional resources without having to make a phone call, schedule an appointment or even drive to a courthouse.
The site offers court forms and instructions as well as links to legal services agencies and information about hiring a lawyer. The goal of the site is to assist litigants who are trying to navigate the court system.
Dunlap said the sky is the limit for the new website’s potential. What is available currently is considered the first version. The web page is expected to become a comprehensive online portal to the civil legal system in Indiana for litigants and, potentially, attorneys.
Indianalegalhelp.org is separate from the website Indiana.freelegalanswers.org. The latter is restricted to lower-income households and is built on a platform offered by the American Bar Association. The former has no means-testing and points visitors to legal resources.
As Dunlap outlined, the idea is for the new website to develop more robust programming and capacity so it becomes a “front door” through which people can enter to start the civil legal process. More resources and technological enhancements, including the use of artificial intelligence, are expected to help people with legal questions find the information they need more easily.
Tracy Pappas, attorney and statewide intake director at Indiana Legal Services, said for those who do not have a lawyer, the legal help website is “kind of the next best thing.” She noted a lot of people can get through the process if they can get a few questions answered.
All in one place
Many of the pieces now on the legal help website had been available in different places flung across the internet. For example, the Indiana courts’ website had the legal forms and some videos about what to expect in a courtroom, and the Indiana State Bar Association offers the portal to finding an attorney.
The information has now either migrated or been linked to the new website. Families and individuals can find out if they are economically eligible for civil legal aid. They can also get directed to additional resources on a variety of topics including housing, employment, medical and tax issues.
Delaware Circuit Judge Kimberly Dowling led the CCA’s Best Practices Committee that oversaw the creation of the legal help website. She drew upon her experience spearheading the development of the self-help center in the courthouse in Muncie in 2016.
The center, a repurposed conference room, has computers available where pro se litigants can download and fill out the court forms they need. They also have access to written instructions that walk them through each step of completing the form. A couple of afternoons a week, an attorney, known as a facilitator, is on-hand to answer questions.
What is happening at the self-help center likely provides some insight into what can be expected with the new website. Many of the pro se litigants are tapping the facilitator for help even though the attorney is limited to basically assisting with forms and does not offer legal advice.
Statistics kept by the Delaware County courts show 2,037 individuals visited the center from September 2016 through mid-November 2018 and sought help from the facilitator. The number does not include those who utilized the self-help facility but did not ask the attorney a question.
Of the filings from the self-help center, a majority, 1,027, fell into family law issues including divorce, motions to modify custody and parenting time. This was followed by 587 filings for small claims and 125 filings for guardianships of minor children.
Dowling is optimistic about the new legal help website, believing it will provide the assistance people need. However, she pointed out, while the site should be as user-friendly as possible, the law is complex, so pro bono help and legal services will remain essential.
In Delaware County, court administrator Emily Anderson has heard the rumblings of some attorneys who feel the self-help center is taking their business. The center is open to all regardless of income, but she maintained that most of the individuals representing themselves cannot afford a lawyer.
Both Dunlap and Pappas emphasized that legal professionals still have an opportunity to sell their services to these clients by offering limited-scope representation. The pro se litigants do not have the financial resources for soup-to-nuts service, but they might have enough money to have the attorney represent them at the court proceeding.
Lawyers might fear that once they help with a portion of a case, the judge will not let them step away and instead make them handle the entire matter. However, Pappas said she has never seen that happen and believes once a couple of attorneys unbundle their services and show they can make good money, other attorneys will follow.
Dunlap also envisions the legal help website listing pro bono opportunities, providing resource materials attorneys can quickly reference when helping clients, and perhaps even offering some training the lawyers might need.
Plans also call for the site to be bolstered for the pro se litigants.
Prior to the site going live, Zionsville attorney Kate Guerrero coordinated the work of reviewing the court forms and making recommendations for revisions to the CCA’s Best Practices Committee. She called upon volunteer attorneys to examine the forms that were publicly available to ensure they aligned with the current rules and statutes.
None of the forms were invalid, Guerrero said. Rather, the purpose of the review was to update or make adjustments so litigants would have everything they needed when appearing before a judge.
The court forms on the website still contain some legalese, but Guerrero said rewriting in plain language is the next phase. “The road is long,” she said. “To make (the forms) more accessible and user-friendly is something we’re exploring now.”
Also, Dunlap is hoping to change how the forms are presented and completed. Currently, the forms are in a pdf format where litigants fill in the blanks. Plans call for a transition to something resembling TurboTax, which poses a series of questions that the individuals answer, and at the end a form is generated.
Additionally, a prototype being developed by Microsoft for legal services in Alaska and Hawaii could bring artificial intelligence to the new website. At some point, Hoosiers wanting civil legal help might be able to type in some general information, and the site would find the specific information they needed. For example, someone might type, “I’m locked out of my house,” and the legal help website would possibly return with resources about protective orders or eviction.
“Pro se really isn’t going to go away,” Dunlap said. So the question is, “How do you make it work best for people?”•