Lawyer-student teams offer low-income litigants free advice Legal novices are shown how to handle the system

April 16, 1996|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,SUN STAFF

Daniel Morgan went to the Baltimore County Courthouse recently to seek custody of his 2 1/2 -year-old son. He looked perturbed and anxious, a layman tackling a complex legal system and wondering: "What the heck form do you file?"

He and his wife -- like many legal novices, seeming intimidated by the court experience -- were directed to a small office where an attorney and law student help to demystify the process through the Pro Se Project.

In Baltimore County and courthouses in half a dozen other jurisdictions, lawyer-student Pro Se teams offer free advice to low-income litigants on how they can represent themselves in simple, uncontested domestic matters such as divorces, child custody, or modifying visitation agreements and child-support payments.

The Latin name, Pro Se, means "for yourself" -- and that was what Mr. Morgan had in mind because he could not afford a lawyer.

He spent a half-hour with third-year law student Francine Krumholtz, who is allowed to practice law under a lawyer's supervision. She gave him the forms he needed -- some of the 21 forms developed by the courts for use by laymen -- and tips on how to fill them out.

The program "was not meant to represent these clients or get into extensive legal consultation with them," said Baltimore County Courts Administrator Peter J. Lally. "It was just meant to give them preliminary information."

The Pro Se Project began in February 1995. It also is operating in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Harford, Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

As a result of the project, "We have seen a significant increase in pro se pleadings in the court," Mr. Lally said, but he did not have specific numbers.

"There's a dire need for affordable or free family law services," said Karen Czapanskiy, professor of law at the University of Maryland School of Law. She added that fewer free legal services are available in family law than in other legal areas, and that the need would grow as federally funded legal services are cut.

Legal Aid no longer provides free legal services in Baltimore County, and Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Services, which matches litigants with pro-bono lawyers, serves only very indigent families. A mother with two children earning more than $18,000 would be ineligible. The only other option is a reduced-fee panel of area lawyers, but there are only three.

None was a viable option for Mr. Morgan, who trekked to the courthouse on a rainy afternoon and told his story in the windowless office, outfitted only with a phone, a table, several chairs and a tall filing cabinet.

He said he had an adulterous affair with an ex-convict prostitute, and their union produced the son who was in her custody.

Mr. Morgan, who described himself as a recovering heroin addict with new religious faith, said, "I definitely would like to get him out of the environment he's in . What the heck form do you file?"

Ms. Krumholtz gave him a stack of papers, and numbered them so he would know the order in which to fill them out when he got home. "What you'll do is file a motion for custody of the child," she began, also giving him information on how to file a motion for a hearing before a court master.

She marked off portions and printed a few reminder notes to refresh his memory when he got home, and advised him to file it in Baltimore, where the boy lives.

She also gave him the phone number of the Legal Forms Helpline, run by the Women's Law Center as a complement to the Pro Se Project. Typical questions range from, "He hasn't answered, what do I do next?" when a complaint is not answered within the required 30 days, to "What do I put in line four?" according to Marguerite Angelari, a lawyer with the Women's Law Center in Towson who supervises the law students.

The Pro Se students are typically in their third year, seeking clinical litigation experience, and they come from either the University of Maryland or University of Baltimore law schools.

Ms. Angelari said the program fills a need that has been around for awhile. "People who want to get divorced say, 'Now I can do it -- where were you two years ago?' " But she advises those with complicated problems to hire a lawyer.

Pub Date: 4/16/96

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