Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

Access to Justice in Idaho

Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

Access to Justice in Idaho

Article excerpt

Idaho's Court Assistance Office Project started operations in July 1999. The project is overseen by a standing committee of the supreme court known as the Committee to Increase Access to the Courts. When it chose program goals, the committee consulted the Survey of Pro Se Litigation and Staff Assistance by the American Judicature Society/Justice Management Institute, (1) as well as a report on pro se litigants in Idaho family law cases. (2) In the hope of making the Idaho court system more accessible, the Project has been charged with addressing the recommendations of the report concerning plain English forms and brochures, pro bono legal and paralegal assistance, and equipment and technology needs.

Rather than create new forms and informational brochures, the Project collected and reviewed existing state law related materials. Brochures were purchased in bulk from various agencies and disseminated in all forty-four of Idaho's counties. Permission to use specific forms was obtained from the authors. Forms authored by the Idaho Volunteer Lawyer's Program, however, were made available through cooperative workshops. (3)

The Project tried four different staffing models to determine the most effective method of assisting pro se litigants. (4) In two small counties with supportive local judges, part-time court clerks were given court assistance office functions along with their regular duties. In a medium sized county, a half-time attorney was hired as an independent contractor to provide services and coordinate law student volunteers. In a large county, a full-time paralegal with court clerking experience was employed. In a ten-county judicial district, two independent contractors, one an attorney and the other a court interpreter, were hired part-time. All assistance was provided in a location outside the court clerk's office.

To provide better pro se legal services, both the Idaho Volunteer Lawyers Program and Idaho Legal Aid Services increased the number and frequency of their default divorce workshops. The Project has linked with both agencies to manage initial case intake and screen referrals. The goal is one-stop shopping, so patrons will not spend unnecessary time contacting agencies that are unable to provide services. Each Court Assistance Office has a list of the case qualifications for each Legal Aid Services office, as well as the Volunteer Lawyer's Program. (5) Each office also has referral lists with the contact information, practice areas, and hourly rates of interested private attorneys. In addition to providing referrals for legal services, the Project provides references to local social service agencies that may benefit patrons. Finally, the Idaho State Bar has started a Modest Means Program that links the working poor (6) with a reduced fee (7) attorney for a $15.00 application fee. If no match can be found, the fee is refunded. In addition to providing referrals for legal services, the Project provides references to local social service agencies that may benefit patrons.

Court assistance officers are authorized to help patrons with the information needed to complete the forms and assist them with formatting issues. A Project website was developed to offer forms, instructions, and referral information, (8) and each Court Assistance Office was outfitted with a computer for patron and staff use. Officers do not prepare forms for patrons, but they may provide typing services for impaired individuals. (9)

Evaluation has been a key component of the Project since its inception. The Justice Management Institute conducted the first six-month pilot project evaluation. (10) The three largest Project offices also had local oversight committees that were kept abreast of problems and successes at each location. At the end of the pilot project, none of the offices were earmarked for closure. The medium sized office expanded considerably due to increased caseload. …

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