Arizonans get legal aid in a jiffy by computer QuickCourt machines allow customers to skip the lawyers

April 08, 1996|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MESA, Ariz. -- The middle-aged man strolled up to the computer kiosk with the nonchalance of a bank customer approaching an automated teller machine. Except this machine is called QuickCourt, and the customer was looking for a divorce.

"Has your marriage irretrievably broken down?" asked the voice from the computer screen.

"Y," the husband typed. Yes, he wanted to file a divorce petition.

This is how hundreds of Arizonans every year are starting the process of ending their marriages or suing a landlord or going to small-claims court: They stand at a computer screen, punch in personal details, print out documents and file the forms themselves.

No lawyers. No fat legal fees. No burden on court clerks. Just a customer and a friendly computer.

Or the customers walk into the Phoenix courthouse, pick up a packet on divorce or custody or child support at the Self-Service Center and begin filling out the forms themselves.

In a nation where everyone laughs at greedy-lawyer jokes, where the government is cutting legal programs for the poor, and where courthouses are mazes that only lawyers can fathom, Arizona is committed to helping residents find their own way through the legal system.

"We don't give legal advice and we don't fill out forms," said Bob James, the Self-Service Center's assistant administrator. "But it's our contention people don't need help filling out forms."

The American Bar Association says Arizona, with its philosophy that courts shouldn't be places of mystery, leads the nation in innovative legal programs.

And even skeptics from other states (including Maryland), who warn that going to court without an attorney can be dangerous, are studying what works in Arizona.

What they see in the Maricopa County Superior Court, in downtown Phoenix, is more than 170 customers arriving daily at the center to read instruction packets and fill out forms.

Children play at kiddie furniture while their parents and grandparents take care of legal business.

Volunteer attorneys offer a half-hour's legal advice for free to low-income people and for a fee to wealthier customers.

Staff members at information desks point customers to the right documents.

Maroon-and-white banners hung from the ceiling guide newcomers from "Start Here" to information on divorce or child-support or estate problems.

"Saber es poder," reads one banner in Spanish. "Knowledge is power."

20,000 users

Since the center opened in October, about 20,000 people have walked in seeking information. But Arizonans don't have to come to the courthouse for help. A phone service that can handle up to 120 calls simultaneously provides six hours of recorded legal information, and 1,700 calls come in each week.

"You can, in your robe and slippers, Sunday night at 9: 30 find out what to do with the property of your grandfather who just passed away," Mr. James said.

And the court has a home page on the Internet, so "you could download our forms if you were in Paris or Baltimore or anywhere, 24 hours a day, seven days a week." About 200 people a month are signing on to the service.

This is a system that doesn't underestimate the public.

Though most Americans wouldn't dream of tackling legal issues without a lawyer, Arizonans think differently. From judges to lawyers to community groups, residents believe they can begin the legal process on their own.

"The traditional response is, 'They can't do it. We'd better do it for them,' " said Noreen Sharp, administrator of the Self-Service Center. "We say, 'No. You can do this on your own.' "

The forms and directions were carefully crafted to include "no Latin, no legalese, nothing over five syllables," Mr. James said.

The move to self-help legal programs is "very, very market-driven," Ms. Sharp said. Before the courts began these services, more Arizonans were walking into court alone anyway.

An American Bar Association survey found that in 1990, 90 percent of Maricopa County divorce cases involved at least one party who didn't use a lawyer. In 52 percent of the cases, neither spouse hired an attorney.

Ms. Sharp said that people have begun to look at legal costs the ZTC same way they look at pumping their own gas or installing their own kitchens: It may take more time to do it yourself, and it may sometimes be frustrating, but it will save you money.

Attorneys adapting

Arizona's attorneys are adapting. With people saying they don't want to pay a flat fee of several thousand dollars for a divorce, lawyers are offering "unbundled legal services."

A divorce client, for example, may simply want a couple of hours of legal advice on custody or on dividing property. That bill may be just $200 or $300 -- a huge savings over the old fee arrangement.

Ms. Sharp said lawyers don't object because "this is business going out the door anyway. These are people who are saying, 'I can't afford to go with the best, so I'll go with what I can afford.' "

"Lawyers are recognizing reality," said Jeanie Lynch, the QuickCourt project manager for the Supreme Court of Arizona.

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