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Pilot Programs Chart Strategies for Assisting Self-Represented Litigants

Friday, March 11, 2011

  • By: Jonathan Vickery
  • Organization: Texas Access to Justice Foundation
  • Source: Texas > Texas Lawyers Help

 Responding to the rising number of self-represented litigants in Texas, the Texas Access to Justice Foundation recently made several grants to pilot projects to develop best practices for assisting low-income people who are representing themselves in civil court proceedings. These grants, which began on January 1 of this year, will run for 20 months. Within these first few months of the grants, the programs have already assisted hundreds of self-represented litigants.

The Rural Pro Se Litigation Project, a pilot program of Lone Star Legal Aid was established to address the needs of low-income people in rural areas who are representing themselves in civil court proceedings. The project provides information, advice, and access to technology and is housed at the Nacogdoches Public Library in Nacogdoches and the TLL Temple Memorial Library in Diboll. Research found that libraries are often the starting point for people in the community seeking legal information.

To date, the project has assisted over 100 applicants with information and brief advice, and has provided forms for applicants for matters including divorce, power of attorney, name change, consumer issues, and real estate issues.

Texas Legal Services Center's (TLSC) Self-Represented Litigants' Project has four components: 1) installing two self-help workstations in the Lubbock County Law Library; 2) producing a self-help video giving self-represented litigants basic information such as how to file documents with the clerk's office and what happens in an uncontested divorce hearing; 3) producing self-help documents in a user-friendly interview format and posting them on www.texaslawhelp.org; and 4) adding an internet chat feature to www.texaslawhelp.org that allows users to talk to an attorney using instant messaging.

The video is in the editing stage and should be posted on YouTube and Texas Law Help this summer. The workstations are fully functional and are proving to be popular with the public. TLSC has posted several self-help kits to www.texaslawhelp.org. Two lawyers have begun providing legal information and legal advice through internet chats to low income persons in all of Texas' 254 counties. Since the chat program began in May 2010, TLSC's attorneys have handled over 1500 chats with low income Texans.

The Smith County Bar Foundation is increasing access to justice in Smith County through a court-based Self-Help Center, staffed by a full time reference attorney in collaboration with the Smith County Law Library. The Foundation is also increasing the number of volunteers who accept cases through Lone Star Legal Aid.

Almost 20,000 clients use the Smith County Law Library annually, and it is estimated that almost half of those are self-represented and low-income. This program estimates it will double the number of volunteer hours provided through Lone Star Legal Aid and assist several hundred self-represented litigants. Not only will it increase access to justice for low-income litigants, but it will alleviate the burden of assisting self-represented litigants that is now placed on the courts and their staff.

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