Consumers and the Courts
Self-Help Center Provides Options for People Representing Selves in Court
More and more people are representing themselves in Maryland’s courts. These self-represented litigants are the newest “consumers” of court services. How can Maryland’s courts help people who may have little or no experience in court cases? Courts cannot provide legal advice, but they are trying to find ways to help people get the assistance they need.
The District Court of Maryland Self-Help Center has launched free, online live-chat and phone-in self-help services for people across Maryland who need assistance with civil legal issues before any of the District Court’s 35 locations.
The new services are an extension of the District Court’s walk-in self-help center in Glen Burnie, which opened two years ago, and are offered to help people who are representing themselves in small claims, landlord-tenant and other civil matters in District Court.
Through a contract with Maryland Legal Aid, four full-time attorneys, a paralegal and an administrative assistant provide basic information, legal assistance and help in finding and completing court forms. As their cases proceed, users can ask for further help in preparing for a court proceeding or get additional assistance. If people need more help, the staff may refer them to mediation, other legal organizations or the private bar. The District Court’s self-help services are free.
“Few people who come to the District Court are represented by an attorney, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need help,” said Chief Judge Ben C. Clyburn of the District Court of Maryland. “Our challenge is to serve the needs of the many self-represented court users who may appear at any District Court location throughout the state, and provide that service in a fiscally responsible way. Budget and space limitations make it difficult to create walk-in centers in all our locations at this time, so we decided to create a ‘virtual self-help center’ by providing online and phone access to the resources that are already available at our walk-in center in Glen Burnie.”
Users of the online self-help service can chat live with a program attorney or contact an attorney with questions by phone at 410-260-1392. The main website address is www.mdcourts.gov/legalhelp/districtctselfhelpctr.html. The District Court’s online self-help service is available Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m.-noon and 12:30-4:30 p.m., during regular court hours.
The Maryland Access to Justice Commission estimates that each year nearly 350,000 people appear in District and Circuit court proceedings involving basic human needs cases. These Marylanders, mostly individuals and families with low incomes, come to court without the benefit of counsel and usually without help from the existing voluntary legal services system.
In 2011 the District Court Self-Help Center provided legal information to more than 10,000 self-represented litigants with civil cases before the District Court of Maryland. After the remote-access service was launched without fanfare last September, the Center has begun serving more than 1,500 individuals each month. In February, the Center served 1,908 individuals.
“Although many people do not realize it, the right to be represented by a lawyer in court applies primarily to criminal cases and does not apply in most civil matters,” said Wilhelm H. Joseph, Jr., Esq., executive director of Maryland Legal Aid. “Our partnership with the District Court helps close the immense justice gap that exists for low-income Marylanders seeking resolution with their critical civil legal problems.”
In the future, the District Court Self-Help Center also plans to add email access, as well as Skype for live, Web-enabled video conferencing.