Office for the Self-Represented Provides Information to Public
THOUSANDS OF NEW YORKERS SEEKING GUIDANCE
about how to deal with legal problems now
have a new office to help them. The Bronx
County Office for the Self-Represented, a collaborative
effort of the Unified Court System and the
Bronx Borough President's Office, opened Dec. 7
in Bronx Supreme Court to provide procedural and
other court-related information to a growing number
of residents with legal issues.
It is an office for information that the public badly needs.
The Bronx office is the sixth such office to open
in downstate New York, with existing offices operating
in New York, Kings, Queens, Richmond and
Westchester Counties. Nearly 40,000 people walked
through the doors of these offices in 2004 seeking
help, officials said. The Bronx office is the first to
operate as a partnership with an executive agency.
Offices for the self-represented and similar
information sites, such as the recently opened Suffolk
County Library Resources for the Public Program,
answer questions about court operations
and procedures as well as make certain forms available
for pro se, or self-represented, litigants. The
staff does not complete the forms, nor are they permitted
to offer legal advice.
"Helping the sharply increasing number of selfrepresented
litigants is an issue that every state is
having to deal with," said Deputy Chief Administrative
Judge for Justice Initiatives Juanita Bing
Newton. "It is also an issue that the bar has to deal
with in terms of pro bono service, and it's an issue
that government needs to deal with in terms of
providing adequate funding for civil legal services.
Offices for the self-represented and other information sites are just one piece of a comprehensive
program that is evolving in New York and across
the United States to help people who are often
forced to represent themselves."
Judge Newton's office is charged with developing
initiatives and programs to ensure meaningful access
to the courts for all New Yorkers. Her work focuses
on five areas: permanent funding for civil legal services;
adequate funding for indigent defense services;
voluntary pro bono services; the needs of self-represented
litigants; and public education and outreach.
With regard to the self-represented, Judge Newton
has designed and implemented a broad program
of initiatives to ensure that the courts are
user-friendly, and that court and other legal and
referral information is readily available to the public.
In August 2003, her office created a Web site,
www.nycourthelp.gov, to provide quick access to
information, including courthouse locations, court
jurisdictional guides, court forms, answers to commonly-asked questions, law library locations and
links to law research sites, lawyer referrals and other
legal services. More than 600,000 visits have been
made to the Web site, which became available in
Spanish in October.
In addition, 3,000 court employees statewide,
including town and village court staff, have been
trained to provide informational assistance to the public. Judges, including New York City Civil and
Housing Court judges, have received training in
dealing with the special issues presented in cases
involving self-represented litigants. A major program
to increase pro bono assistance is also underway
statewide in collaboration with the bar and
other stakeholders in the civil justice system.
Judge Newton stressed that recent court surveys
conducted by her office have confirmed that most
people who represent themselves do so not by
choice but because they cannot afford an attorney.
Roughly one million individuals eligible for legal
assistance are rejected each year because legal aid
programs lack sufficient resources to handle them,
according to the September 2005 report "Documenting
the Justice Gap in America" by the Legal
Services Corporation (LSC), which funds local
legal aid groups throughout the country. LSC has
also reported that for every client served by an LSC-funded
program, at least one was turned away. Only a small percentage of the legal problems
experienced by low-income individuals (one in five
or less) are actually addressed with the assistance of
a private or legal aid lawyer, according to LSC.
"We have to keep our eyes on the prize, and the
prize is providing help and information to people
who come to our courts," said Judge Newton.
"Some are there because they are litigants who can't
afford lawyers, and some are there because they have
some type of issue and they're just trying to get information.
So calling it an Office for the Self-Represented
is almost too limiting a name. It is an office for
information that the public badly needs."
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