In our interviews with experts and court professionals, we identified some of the core challenges and needs.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • More and more people are coming to the civil court system without a lawyer
  • Judges, clerks, and other court professionals have an obligation to be neutral, but they also must serve these people without lawyers
  • Many of these court professionals are trying to figure out ways that they can be supportive and warm to users, without biasing the system towards them. They don’t want to be totally passive, but they don’t want to be hyperactive in support.
  • They try to help people present the facts clearly, so that the story of what’s going on is clear — so the justice system can work well
  • People can’t figure out how to present their facts and issues on their own — they need assistance to do this

We also heard some core needs and constraints, the “lay of the land” of how the systems work and what dynamics are going on.

About Self Help Centers as a thing:

  • They are run at Courts, on site
  • They are led by a lawyer as a managing director, with support from other attorneys, non-attorneys, and Justice Corps volunteers
  • They must be Neutral
  • They are not the lawyers of the people who come in. There is no confidentiality or other features of an attorney-client relationship
  • They can’t go into court with the person

Many of the people fit into the following categories:

  • they’re employed
  • they make less than $3000 a month
  • many are Spanish-speaking, or don’t have English as their first language
  • many are not of White background
  • many are being referred by word of mouth, clerks, judges, forms, or the website
  • they come seeking “some legal help”
  • then they return for follow-up checks and support — typically there are three visits in family cases.

The goals of the Self Help Center and the Judicial Council are as follows:

  • They want to identify systemic problems they can fix
  • They want to build partnerships and coalitions to enhance the center
  • They want to get beyond just helping the person get the paperwork right — but also improve negotiation and strategy skills
  • They want to figure out ways to make a wider continuum of services available, from lawyers to non-lawyers to tech services

The problems of the system are that it is:

  • designed for lawyers
  • there are very complex choices, because of how the law is structured
  • the forms are made for people with lawyers
  • there is a wide variety of people coming in for service

The opportunities experts see are that:

  • we can use technology, online services, and off-site services
  • we promote more listening and respect for people
  • we give more guidance and navigation
  • we help people advocate for themselves when they are before the judge, so they can make better use of hearings
  • we can identify and redirect complex cases (about 20% of the cases)

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