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Benchmarks: Journal of the New York State Unified Court System

Winter 2006

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."

Winter 2006 PDF Format
HTML Version:

State of the Judiciary Judicial Elections Report Summary Jury Trials Indigent Defense Services Multi-Hat Judge Matrimonial Commission Solo & Small Firm Practice Office of Self-Represented National Adoption Day Court Reporters Listening Conference Construction Update Historic Courthouses and Trials Did You Know? Judicial Institute Calendar UCS Katrina Fund Update Black History Month

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Web page updated: September 1, 2006 - www.NYCOURTS.gov