SEOLS can’t help everyone; who should be helped? The single mother calling about her landlord not making needed repairs, or the disabled father who has an eviction hearing in three days for not paying rent for a house because the landlord would not make needed repairs? The separated parents who need to change custody and are agreeable but need guidance on how to do so, or the abandoned wife being sued for custody by her abusive husband soon after asking for child support? The unemployed being illegally harassed day and night by debt collectors, or the unemployed actually being sued in court by debt collectors who have no proof that any debt is owed them?
When you can’t fully help or even talk to everyone who calls with a legal question or problem, whom do you talk to and whom do you help? Do you focus on advising people if doing so might resolve problems and keep them out of court or help them successfully navigate court on their own, or do you focus your time on representing people already summoned to appear and defend in court? With a little help, the single mother might get needed repairs made and avoid eviction and court; the divorced parents might easily file to change custody if they knew which forms to use, how to complete them, file them, and what to expect in court. And the unemployed might be able to stop the illegal harassment and avoid court.
Achieving justice is a community issue and SEOLS looks to its communities for help. This newsletter talks about the free legal clinic, staffed by private attorneys, in Tuscarawas County. Low-income people come to the clinic, get their questions answered by volunteer attorneys, and get advice and direction about what to do and whether to go into court. If people need to go into court, SEOLS has developed do-it-yourself forms. At the clinic, a volunteer attorney can help each person choose and correctly complete the right forms. SEOLS, working with local judges, bar associations, and other community agencies and churches, has helped develop and support such clinics in half of its 30 counties. These clinics have brought additional legal resources to preventing bigger problems and keeping people out of court.
Between January 1 and the end of June 2014, 95 private attorneys in 15 different counties donated their time to help 634 low-income individuals. That is 634 individuals who likely would not have been able to talk with an attorney about their legal questions, worries and problems. This community collaboration results in fewer people going to court, and our understaffed courts spending less time handling problems and answering questions for unrepresented litigants who too often end up filing the wrong form, completing the right form incorrectly, or not knowing what to do or expect when they get to court.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said, “Fairness is what justice really is.” However, to those without an attorney, our justice system seems mysterious and unfair—with its own language and hard-to-find and understand rules, procedures and forms. These community collaborations and the volunteer attorneys who help out at these free clinics do more than help struggling individuals and families resolve and avoid problems and sleep a little easier at night. They help bring the justice systems in their communities closer to what we all know it needs to be: fair and accessible for all.