District Court center offers free legal help

Self-help program in Glen Burnie is a pilot for Maryland

July 12, 2010|By Andrea F. Siegel, The Baltimore Sun

When Nikki Green walked into the district courthouse in Glen Burnie on a recent afternoon, she had no idea how to begin her quest to unravel a dispute over a car payment.

But after sitting with an attorney designated to help people who want to tackle claims on their own, she learned what papers to file and where and when to do it, and received a briefing on court deadlines and procedures.

The cost: nothing.

"I knew what I wanted to do, and I didn't know how to do it," said Green, a Severna Park nurse. But lawyer Lonni Kyhos Summers "helped me with a game plan."

Green and hundreds of other Anne Arundel County residents have been flocking to the Glen Burnie District Court Self-Help Center, a test project of the Maryland judiciary as the state tries to cope with an onslaught of people representing themselves in court.

Staffed by members of the Legal Aid Bureau, the pilot program is aimed at the meat-and-potatoes civil cases — small claims, landlord-tenant disputes, creditor-debtor issues and protective orders — that can clog the court system and lead to frustration when people try to handle the cases themselves.

Officials estimate that two-thirds of litigants in District Court forgo a lawyer. Some choose that route as a way to save money, but are unaware of rules that can easily kill a case. Others can't afford representation, such as those close to eviction for not paying rent.

"We can at least try to level the playing field so that you understand the process. A key component is that you know what you need to do," said Ben C. Clyburn, chief judge of Maryland's District Court system.

Open since December, the four-person center has assisted more than 1,850 people — the monthly number reached a high of 543 in June, said supervising attorney Sarah Coffey Frush. The center averaged fewer than 10 daily visitors in the first three months. But as word spread, numbers have climbed.

The one-year initiative is being paid for with $320,000 from the judiciary system's budget.

Frush said she and her staff help "ordinary folks" navigate the court system, with advice on how to complete forms and how to present a case, as well as provide referrals to mediation services, a domestic violence program and other agencies.

The service is open to anyone who comes in on either side of a case, regardless of income.

On a recent morning, a landlord, unsure how to evict a renter for a serious lease violation, got an explanation. A man seeking to clean up his credit got advice on how to handle old judgments against him.

"An attorney? I don't know how I'd pay him. I don't have the extra money right now," said Margaret Morgan of Brooklyn Park, who was in court to deal with a range of landlord-tenant issues. Six months of financial and family problems have left her trying to scrape by on a part-time job.

A court security worker suggested she try the center, where an attorney helped her with a request for a new hearing on her overdue rent.

If the guard hadn't told her about the initiative, she said, "I'd would have been boo-hooing my way out of here wondering what I'm going to do."

Thomas Brennen, of Edgewater, also turned to the center with rent issues. A judge had earlier set the stage for his eviction while he was sitting in the wrong courtroom waiting for his case to be called, and now he didn't know what to do. Attorneys at the center tried to help him figure out whether he could afford an appeal.

Clyburn hopes to expand the free program — which is similar to initiatives in Alaska and Minnesota — to Prince George's and Montgomery counties and Baltimore City.

"It's really a statewide issue," Clyburn said.

Ultimately, Clyburn envisions a statewide program that might include on-site centers as well as video conferencing, and phone and web assistance.

Glen Burnie was chosen as the test site because "it has the right mix of cases," Clyburn said, as well as available space that had been remodeled for offices.

For years, court clerks have helped people complete forms for routine cases. But clerks are not allowed to give legal advice. That's where the self-help center comes in.

"The form helps you in a very modest way," said Pamela C. Ortiz, executive director of the state Access to Justice Commission, which helped create the center, modeled on longtime family law self-help programs. After filling in the basic information, many people are stumped.

"They don't know what a plaintiff is. They don't know what a defendant is. And they certainly don't know what a replevin is," Ortiz said, using the legal term for reclaiming property.

John P. McKenna, administrative judge for the Anne Arundel County District Court, said he's seen a decrease in technical errors in small-claims cases since the program has begun.

A little help can make a big difference, Clyburn said, noting that the program can assist people who "are one step away from becoming homeless."

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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