Legal help for the poor

"A man and woman appeared Friday before Judge Alan Hancock for a divorce hearing in Island County Superior Court. As is becoming increasingly common, both sides represented themselves because they couldn't afford to hire attorneys.The estranged couple simply were not prepared. Neither had filled out their forms correctly and Hancock ended up spending a great deal of court time questioning them to get the information he needed.That meant other people on the judge's overcrowded schedule had to wait or were forced to come back another time for their day in court. Now there's help. This summer Superior Court officials started a self-help program allowing lawyer-less people to navigate their way through the family court system, which is where people's lives most often intersect with the judicial system.Sarah McMahan, a former paralegal and counselor, is the new court facilitator at the Law and Justice Center in Coupeville. She started the one-day-a-week position June 1. Already, she's booked up each Tuesday with people who have questions, are having trouble filling out forms, or just don't know where to start.Since family court involves such cases as divorces, child custody, alimony and parenting plans, the court procedures for many people are often made more difficult because raw emotions are involved. After all, people standing in family court are usually going through some of the biggest and most important changes of their lives.They come in either angry or hurting, McMahan says, and part of my job is to let them know they are being heard in this difficult time in their lives.And their need is real. The American Bar Association, for example, estimates that between 61 to 75 percent of low-income people's legal needs go unmet. Unlike criminal cases, the state doesn't provide legal help for people in family court matters. Superior Court Judge Vickie Churchill says she and Hancock have been trying to create a self-help program in family court for years, but funding was always an obstacle. Anytime you ask the the county commissioners for money, you're not going to get it, she said.The county is one of the last in the state, Churchill says, to start offering a self-help program for family law. The court finally got the money it needed this year - with the commissioners' permission - by increasing filing fees and selling packets of forms. The court also charges $10 for a meeting with the court facilitator.People don't have the front doors of the courthouse open to them if they don't have money, Churchill said. They are always going be at a disadvantage, but at least this will help.In addition to hiring the court facilitator, Churchill and Hancock have put together packets of legal forms for family court matters, complete with user-friendly instructions. The packages, which cost from $5 to $30 each, are available at the court administrator's office. Or for people who prefer dealing with computers, the judges have made a computer with legal software program available to the public. The program is in a simple question-and-answer format that can be used to fill out many different types of family court forms.Also, the court officials have set up a self help center complete with dozens of free pamphlets on just about every conceivable legal subject outside the courtrooms. The court officials say there are many advantages to helping people understand family law. It saves my time and trouble, Hancock said, and saves them the mental anguish, if you will, of trying to understand the forms. But my primary concern, as a judge, is to get the proper order entered.In other words, the judges want to help people help them make the best decisions possible.You can reach features editor Jessie Stensland at or call 675-6611. "

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