A new do-it-yourself legal center will help Yorkers represent themselves in civil matters ranging from divorce and child custody to eviction and bankruptcy.
The York County Court Self-Help Center, which opened Wednesday on the first floor of the York County Judicial Center, is aimed at increasing access for people who are either facing a civil suit or need to file one, said Victoria Connor, CEO of the York County Bar Association and Foundation.
A bar association task force formed last year showed people who might not be able to afford an attorney needed better access to information so they could properly represent themselves, she said.
Low-income people facing criminal charges can get a public defender, but those facing civil matters don't have as many resources available to them because the available programs are swamped, said York County Court Administrator Tom Roberts.
Civil cases can be incredibly important in the life of a defendant or plaintiff, especially in matters such as custody, he said.
"There's nothing more serious than wanting to have your children," he said.
For $5, a person can walk into the new center and buy a packet of information "that goes through A-Z everything they need to do" in a custody suit, as well as a tutorial that shows them how to represent themselves and file a case with the prothonotary, Roberts said.
Dire need: Connor said the need for civil legal aid has risen to a crisis level because of the combination of federal and state funding cuts to legal services and a rise in York's poverty level over the economic recession.
"About 80 percent of the people who need help get turned away from the legal community," she said.
The center was a joint effort between the county court system and the bar association. On a "shoestring," the county pulled furniture from storage and shuffled employees so it could furnish the center and staff it with one person, a non-attorney who can guide people to information, Connor said.
The bar foundation contributed $10,000 in seed money, which was matched by another $10,000 from the State Justice Institute to buy materials, brochures, and provide training, she said.
Easing confusion: Connor said the center will also help to improve efficiency in the court system, which can get tied up when someone representing himself or herself gets confused about procedure.
"If you're Joe Q. Public and you have a civil case and you want to represent yourself in court, you can't just write a letter to the judge or go to court unprepared," she said. "There are motions to be filed and processes to go through in order to get a court hearing."
Before the center opened, pro se litigants looked up information online and used the county's website to find documents to sort out their cases, Connor said.
"Basically they were on their own," she said. "Every time you go into a courtroom and you're not prepared, it costs the taxpayers money in court administration. If things are not properly filed, the judge is gonna toss it. The judge is the impartial arbiter. They cannot be advising someone when to object ... or how to help themselves in front of the court."
Roberts said the center is expected to save the county money, but he couldn't quantify the savings.
"There's a tremendous amount of resources wasted at the different filing offices because people come in there and they want legal advice, and we're not allowed to give legal advice," he said.
He said many other Pennsylvania counties have already created similar centers, so local court officials studied their models to determine best practices before opening the center in York.
President York County Commissioner Steve Chronister said the center fills a serious need.
"Having been through lawsuits myself and having to spend a lot of money to defend yourself, it's a real drain," he said. "For somebody who has less money than I do, I can't imagine what they have to go through."
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