Howard County Circuit Court’s Self-Help Program Growing by Popular Demand

By Sandy Brewer, librarian, Howard County Circuit Court Law Library and Catherine McGuire, Outreach Services, Maryland State Law Library

This article is part of a series that showcases different court programs available around the state that help people who represent themselves in legal issues. These people are often referred to as self-represented or pro se litigants.

Helping those who represent themselvesSelf-represented litigants (SRLs) with civil legal issues have several options for free legal help in Howard County.

The Circuit Court for Howard County launched its Civil Law Self-Help Center in April 2008 as a pilot project. Created to meet the needs of self-represented civil litigants who do not qualify for Legal Aid, yet cannot afford an attorney, the center was so successful that a regular, standing program was launched that summer.

Now, the center is hosted from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Tuesday in the Law Library at the Circuit Court for Howard County. The law librarian schedules attorneys who express an interest in pro bono work to staff the center. These attorneys provide free legal advice in civil, non-domestic matters to walk-in visitors. Because there is a wide range of civil matters, attorneys find it useful to have the center located in the Law Library. The law librarian provides information, both in print and online, to help the attorneys and the SRLs in preparing for their cases. Some areas of the law that the center can help
with include landlord/tenant, contracts, appeals, small claims, expungement of records and homeowner association disputes.

Since the Civil Law Self-Help Center’s successful launch, the Circuit Court for Howard County has expanded the center into the community, partnering with the Howard County Public Library to provide additional assistance to the self-represented. Center hours are offered two evenings a month, 6 to 8 p.m., in the meeting room of Howard County Public Library’s East Columbia Branch.

Like many counties in Maryland, Howard County has a Family Law Assistance Program. The program has been a success for more than a decade, with attorneys helping 273 self-represented litigants in just the first quarter of FY 2010. The program is located at the Howard County Circuit Court in a newly remodeled room with a computer, printer, phone, conference table, sofa and toys for children who accompany their parents.

This past July, the law librarian began helping the Family Law Office schedule attorneys to staff this program. Volunteer attorneys provide free family law advice to self-represented litigants on a walk-in basis on Mondays and Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. At the same time, the program began offering evening hours, similar to the Civil Law Center. Once a month, attorneys provide free legal advice from 6 to 8 p.m. in the East Columbia Branch Library meeting room.

Both of the Circuit Court’s pro bono programs require those seeking free legal advice to have low income. This eligibility requirement helps the programs to meet their mutual goal—helping the working poor who are unable to pay for legal services. Client income eligibility guidelines are based on household income information from Maryland Legal Services Corporation. Also, visitors to the programs must fill out an Intake Sheet and sign an Agreement for Limited Legal Advice.

More assistance programs are being developed. The Howard County Pro Bono Committee, a 10-member group made up of local legal community and citizen representatives, has been studying further options for the self-represented litigant (SRL). The committee is working to establish an integrated, centralized pro bono program in Howard County. The Committee plans to create guides to empower SRLs with information. The committee also plans to develop educational programs such as speakers to inform not only the SRL, but attorneys as well. The committee may start an additional civil pro se clinic, one day a week, at the District Court for Howard County.

To learn more, contact:

Circuit Court for Howard County,
Civil Law Self-Help Center, Circuit Court Law Library, Sandy Brewer, law librarian
(410) 313-2135 or sandy.brewer@mdcourts.gov

Circuit Court for Howard County,
Family Law Assistance Program
Circuit Court Family Law Office
Lisa Mohink, director, or Sandy Brewer, law librarian (contact information above)
(410) 313-2225 or lisa.mohink@mdcourts.gov

Visit the websites:

Howard County Circuit Court Law Library

Howard County Family Law Assistance Program