Making the Courts User-Friendly

THE organized bar is grudgingly coming to terms with the legal self-help movement. In part this is a pragmatic recognition that lawyers won't be able to stamp it out, and it's partly an acknowledgment that the legal needs of many Americans - not just the poor, but also the middle class - are not being met.

``Legal self-help is an area of growing interest on the part of legislatures, bar associations, and state supreme courts,'' says David Brent, staff director of the American Bar Association's Commission on Nonlawyer Practice.

The ABA commission recently completed eight hearings around the country about legal self-help. (Nolo Press publisher Ralph Warner testified to the panel in Sacramento, Calif.) By next summer it plans to issue a report of its findings with recommendations for ABA action to help meet the legal needs of people who can't afford or do not have convenient access to lawyers' services.

Many legal do-it-yourselfers stick to such non-contested matters as writing a will or filing for bankruptcy. But others bravely sally forth into court to get divorced or to sue their landlords, employers, or government-benefits agencies, armed only with a forms kit and self-help manual. Some jurisdictions are trying to make bewildering court systems more user-friendly for these pro se (also called pro per) litigants.

In Maricopa County, Ariz. (which includes Phoenix), 20,000 divorce actions are filed annually; in 52 percent of these, neither spouse has a lawyer, and in 88 percent at least one spouse is lawyerless. To help these litigants, simplified forms have been prepared, the state bar association produced a how-to video, the domestic-relations court hired a nonlawyer ombudsman to steer people through the process (without answering legal questions), and the court established a day-care facility.

After studying the Maricopa County model, the ABA's Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services is putting together a book of ideas for other jurisdictions.

Meanwhile, across the country a small but growing number of lawyers are offering ``unbundled'' services, agreeing to provide limited back-up advice for clients who want to handle a legal matter largely on their own.

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