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Legal issues but no lawyer?

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LARC is here to help

The court room. It’s the last place that most people want to be. You don’t speak the language. You know little about the law and most of what you do know is wrong. The consequences of losing are steep—and in this game, there’s always a loser. 

Imagine how much worse it is when you can’t afford an attorney, and your only option is to represent yourself.

“If you can’t afford an attorney, the court will appoint one for you.” How many times have you heard that in movies and television shows? And it’s true... in a criminal matter. But in a civil case (one where your adversary is not the government), there is no such relief. While you can lose a lot in a civil case, your freedom (as opposed to your incarceration) is not in question, so no attorney is provided.

An old adage warns that a “man who represents himself has a fool for a client,” (attributed to both Abe Lincoln and Clarence Darrow—both lawyers) but when it meets head on with an inability to pay (locally, lawyers’ fees begin around $150 an hour), a second adage comes into play: “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.” Although legal aid will provide help with a limited range of legal issues, that help is only provided to those whose incomes are no higher than 125 percent of the federal poverty level. (A family of four who earns $29,000 a year will not qualify.)

According to the American Bar Association, around 40 percent of Americans who need an attorney cannot afford to pay one; that’s the main reason behind the rise in pro se (“for oneself” “on one’s own behalf”) or pro per (“in one’s own person or character”) representation in courts, particularly in civil courts. The National Center for State Courts reports, “... individual states and jurisdictions have documented high numbers of self-represented litigants in domestic-relations (especially divorce and domestic abuse), small-claims, traffic, and landlord/tenant cases.”

The Idaho justice system is acknowledging the burgeoning self-representation movement by funding, in every county, a court assistance officer who can provide guidance in obtaining court forms and who will review completed forms to ensure they meet court guidelines. In addition, computers are available in the court assistance office for pro se litigants to use in preparing court documents.

What the court assistance office can not do, however, is offer you advice on your particular legal issue. And what constitutes legal advice encompasses a broad range of topics including, sometimes, finding out exactly which type of court document you need to file.

Enter LARC—Legal Assistance Resource Connection, (www.transitionsinprogress.org) a program of Transitions in Progress Services, a local 501c(3) also known as Bonner County Homeless Task Force with transitional housing programs for homeless families at Blue Haven and Trestle Creek.

“A lot of people are on the edge, and a legal issue can often push them over that edge,” explained Tami Martinsen, Program Manager for TIPS, as to why an organization focused on homelessness would become involved in providing legal help.

And providing legal help—legal advice­­—is exactly what LARC does.

With a cadre of volunteer local attorneys (the program currently has ten who have donated their time) on hand, applicants to LARC, at no charge, can get a 30-minute consultation where they can ask questions about the issues they face, the best way to respond to those issues, and what steps they need to follow, as well as simply finding out if the paperwork they’ve prepared will be considered complete by the courts.

“This is an incredible, awesome program,” said one client who was waiting to meet with an attorney. “It has provided me with an enormous amount of help.”

Alexandria Lewis, who serves as the Court Assistance Officer for the five northern Idaho counties, said she is “happy this program is available,” as an additional resource she can refer people to.

LARC was born in the thoughts of a retired member of the local legal system (who prefers to remain anonymous) who had seen the impact of the growing movement toward pro se representation: people who entered the courtroom with little understanding of the legal issues surrounding their litigation, little knowledge of the procedures of the court, and a lot of frustration at dealing with the system.

He brought his idea to the local Circles Initiative (a program working on the problems associated with poverty), looking for a lead agency to administer it and TIPS, also a member of the initiative, took on the role.

“The cost of legal representation is so phenomenal, even middle class residents often can’t afford it,” Tami said. “We’re mired in a legal society with limited access to help.” 

Debra Heise, a seated magistrate judge in Bonner County, can certainly attest to the increase in self-representation in the local courts. “Across the board we have seen an increase in the number of self-representing litigators,” she said. “In my family courts, I would estimate about 40 percent of the cases [involve someone representing themselves]. We certainly endorse these types of programs that help people with representing themselves.”

And not just support and endorse. Many of the programs and services available to pro se litigants in the state of Idaho originated in the legal system itself. Judge Heise serves on a committee through the Idaho Supreme Court that encourages local attorneys to become involved in clinics such as LARC and in offering pro bono (public good) services, as well as putting together workshops and information programs to help inform the public about the processes of the legal system, and what is available if you become involved in them. 

Local attorneys are also actively investing their time and talent into making the legal system more accessible to those who cannot afford to pay. There are dozens upon dozens of local attorneys who are working on reduced fee scales, and are giving a certain percentage of their time to working pro bono—for no fee at all.

Although attorneys are the favored butt of many jokes, the fact is if you find yourself in a situation where you have to act as your own legal counsel, you will quickly understand just how much time, effort and specialized knowledge is involved in bringing a case to court; pro se litigants often remark that a good attorney is worth the money you pay for their services.

But you can’t pay what you don’t have. If you or someone you know finds themselves in the position of having to represent themselves in court, let them know that Bonner County has services that can help.

Currently, LARC can offer eight appointments each month (with more volunteer attorneys, they could offer more), which take place on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month. Generally an applicant is offered one appointment, though depending on the issue they might qualify for more.

LARC also maintains a list of resources available to those going the route of pro se representation.

To learn more about LARC, visit their website. Or call for an appointment; 208-265-2952. LARC serves people in the Bonner and Boundary county areas. 

Many standard court documents are available online at www.courtselfhelp.idaho.gov. This website is maintained by the Idaho Supreme Court as a resource for self-represented litigants.

The Idaho Law Foundation also maintains the Legal Resource Line, to answer general legal questions. Reach them toll free at 877-228-6601.

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Author info

Landon Otis

Tagged as:

Homepage, Headlines, law, Idaho, legal problems, attornies, LARC, CIRCLES, pro se, pro per, self-representation, Transitions in Progress, Tami Martinsen, Alexandria Lewis, Judge Debra Heise, Idaho court self help, Legal Resource Line

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