COURTS IN ACTION

Court Self-Help Programs
by Catherine McGuire

Allegany County Circuit CourtCatherine McGuire
Court programs are available around the state to help people who represent themselves in legal issues. These people are often referred to as self-represented or pro se litigants. The focus of this article: Allegany County Circuit Court.

The Family Law Self-Help Centers in the Circuit Courts are likely the best known of the pro se assistance efforts. All 24 jurisdictions offer some assistance, the amount and available time varying from one courthouse to another.

The Allegany County Circuit Court offers a pro se clinic for family law matters (divorce, custody, visitation, child support, name changes). The program is administered by the Allegany Law Foundation (http://alleganylaw.net). Allegany Law, a pro bono referral program created by the Bar Association of Allegany County in 2000, assigns interested local attorneys to clinic work. The three attorneys who staff the clinic are compensated by Allegany Law to help the self-represented fill out civil family law court forms.

The clinic operates on a first-come, first-served basis, with interested parties joining a waiting list. The program began as one day a week, morning hours only, but demand was so high that those hours were extended into the afternoon, and then extended to another location. The clinic is open at the Circuit Court on Thursdays from 9:30 a.m. to noon and 1:30 to 4 p.m., and also at the Frostburg Public Library on the first Monday of each month from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.

Allegany County Circuit CourtEach week, on average, the Allegany County program serves eight to 10 people. Litigants range in age from 18 to over 80, and come from many different backgrounds. The service does not require income screening—it doesn’t even require that the litigant be a resident of Allegany County. Administrators have found that many people who use the service choose for personal rather than financial reasons to represent themselves.

Clinic operators ask that litigants bring the following information with them: correct names and addresses of opposing parties; and financial information in case a waiver of filing fees needs to be filed. If the party wishes to use the sheriff for service of process, the party should also bring funds for that fee, as there is no waiver of the sheriff’s fee.

Client litigants receive a form to rate their satisfaction with the service. Responses on the forms have been overwhelmingly “excellent” and “very satisfied.”

Parties interested in learning more about the clinic can contact the clinic administrator at (301) 777-3390.

This is one example of a self-help program. If your court has a program or services for people who are representing themselves, please let us know: justicematters@mdcourts.gov

Catherine McGuire is outreach services librarian for the Maryland State Law Library.