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February 1, 2004

How Does Your State Compare to California’s Self-Help Program?

Filed under: pre-06-2006 — David Giacalone @ 10:56 am

A new Fact Sheet issued by the California court system on its Programs for Self-Represented Litigants (January 2004), shows again that California “gets” the importance of self-help support efforts to achieving meaningful access to justice, as well as judicial efficiency.   The California self-help system should make all who purport to be committed to access to justice — judges, lawyers, politicians, consumer advocates, court administrators, et al. — take a very close look at what is happening, and not happening, in their own states.

 

The Fact Sheet is only 4-pages long, but contains some important lessons (as does a companion document describing the State’s online self-help efforts):


California’s courts are facing an ever-increasing number of litigants who go to court without legal counsel, largely because they cannot afford representation. Self-represented litigants typically are unfamiliar with court procedures and forms as well as with their rights and obligations, which leaves them disadvantaged in court and consumes significant court resources. Accordingly, the Judicial Council has made access to the courts for self-represented litigants one of its top priorities.

Here are some of the highlights of the program:

power plug . . .


Website: The Online Self-Help Center Program established by the California judiciary was improved significantly again in 2003, including launching a full Spanish-language site.


Family Court Facilitators help more than 30,000 self-represented litigants each month.


Family Law Information Centers: After five years in operation, an evaluation of the effectiveness of five pilot Family Law Information Centers, issued on March 1, 2003, demonstrated that the customers and judges were very happy with the services, and that more than 45,000 litigants were assisted each year.


Five Model Self-help Centers were created in 2002, which focus on translating materials and finding technological solutions, to continue improving the system through new methods of providing services.


Planning and Funding: To assist local courts in determining the needs of the self-represented litigants in their communities, developing partnerships in the communities, and establishing appropriate programs, the Judicial Council has encouraged every court to develop an action plan for serving self-represented litigants. Funding was provided to 52 courts to develop such plans, and for the courts that did develop them, additional funds were provided for implementation.


Similarly, the companion Fact Sheet: Online Self-Help Center Q&A (January 2004) demonstrates that California understands the important role that computer and internet technology can play to support its goals for self-help, access to justice, and the efficient running of the court system.   It states:



The California Courts Online Self-Help Center is the nation’s most comprehensive court-sponsored source of legal information available on the Internet. The Judicial Council of California created the Online Self-Help Center to assist self-represented litigants and others wishing to be better informed about the law and court procedures. In July 2003, the council launched a Spanish-language version of the center, Centro de Ayuda de las Cortes de California. This bilingual link to the courts helps achieve the council’s goal of ensuring meaningful court access for all Californians.


What is the purpose of the Web sites?  California courts are seeing a surge in self-represented litigants, a trend that shows no sign of abating. The California Courts Online Self-Help Center and Centro de Ayuda de las Cortes de California provide the kinds of legal information most sought by self-represented litigants. The Web sites are designed to help those without attorneys to become better informed, navigate the court system with more success, and have more realistic expectations about the legal system.  Although a wealth of legal information and resources is provided, the sites do not interpret the law, predict results, or provide legal advice on individual cases.


What are some key features of the Web sites?   Both the English and Spanish versions contain more than 800 pages designed specifically to help self-represented litigants navigate the court system. Users of the sites can find out about free and low-cost legal assistance, alternative dispute resolution, bringing a lawsuit, filling out court forms, and locating additional resources and information. The sites also offer information about specific [legal] topics.


“question mark”  How does your State compare when it comes to giving meaningful self-help support to pro se litigants?   Here in New York State it appears that there are no court-run self-help centers outside of New York City and Westchester County.   New York’s CourtHelp website is now boasting that it “answers the Questions You Ask Most!”  However, it is almost painful for this native of the “Empire” State to contrast the robust California Small Claims self-help webcenter with the handful of sentences palmed off as NYS’s small claims support page. 





  • Is your local bar helping or hindering Self-Help in your State and community?


  • Materials in the SelfHelpSupport pro se Library can help you find out what’s going on in your state and across the nation.

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