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Much-needed legal guidance to serve region

by Canda HarbaughWestern News
| September 23, 2009 12:00 AM

There is no question that the need is there.

Clerks in district court run into pro se litigants on a daily basis – mostly people who represent themselves in civil matters because they can’t afford an attorney.

“We get so many at our counter and they do need help,” said clerk of court Susan Farmer. “Going alone, as we call it, in district court is not easy for a lot of people.”

Thanks to a federally funded grant, 13 AmeriCorps volunteers will supply much-needed legal guidance to people across the state. The self-help law center in Kalispell is due to get an additional member by Oct. 5 that will be responsible for a service area that includes Libby.

“There will be a live warm body in Libby for at least part of every month,” said Lonnie Browning, Self-Help Law Program administrator for the Montana Supreme Court’s Office of the Court Administrator.

Farmer and others in the clerk of court’s office will welcome the assistance.

“It would be nice to have some help,” Farmer said. “Whoever it is will be very busy.”

Kalispell’s law center, which opened in January 2008 to help guide self-represented litigants through the complexities of the legal system, serves about 40 people a week. The program has an additional self-help center in Billings.

“Having a second, basically full-time person is just going to expand our ability to serve clients tremendously,” said Kandy Satterlee, the resource officer at Flathead County’s self-help law center.

The new volunteer will receive a stipend to work 1,700 hours from October through August, Browning said. 

The number of pro se litigants has increased locally, according to Farmer, and statewide, according to Browning.

“Things have changed dramatically and they’ve changed even more dramatically with the economic crisis,” Browning said. “There are far more self-representing litigants now than we’ve ever seen before.”

The bulk of pro se cases in Lincoln County have to do with divorce, child custody and orders of protection, Farmer said. Other common pro se cases statewide involve landlord-tenant disputes, debtor-creditor issues, name changes and juvenile emancipation.

“Our estimation is at least one party in over half of every family law case is pro se,” Browning said. “It’s a staggering number. My guess is it’s actually far greater than that.”

There are no financial eligibility requirements to get help from the center, Browning said.

“Based on my experience, the vast majority (of people using the self-help centers) is living in poverty or is close to poverty,” Browning said, “but it has started to shift some to middle and upper middle class.”

Only attorneys are allowed to give legal advice, but resource officers at self-help centers can define terms, explain the process and supply the correct forms.

“We try to help people identify what their legal issues actually are. They’ll say, ‘this is my story,’ and the self-help program will try to distill what the underlying legal issues are,” Browning said. “Knowing how mystifying the justice system is for most people, we try to break it down to more manageable bits.”

An additional five AmeriCorps volunteers will work at self-help law centers throughout the state. Six volunteers will staff Montana Legal Services Association’s centralized intake system by screening walk-in clients, entering data, providing support to front line staff, and providing live help on MLSA’s legal information websites. At the Office of Consumer Protection and Victim Services, an additional volunteer will conduct intakes and address consumers’ legal concerns on a variety of issues relating to identity theft, landlord-tenant issues, credit issues and unlawful business practices.

The self-help law center does not address criminal cases, civil cases arising from criminal proceedings or bankruptcy, Browning said.

(Nicholas Ledden of the Daily Interlake contributed to this story.)