Last week, the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program launched six interactive online family law interviews that enable pro se (self-represented) litigants to fill out form pleadings without assistance. The interactive interviews employ a user-friendly, plain-language format—avoiding legal jargon—and are a new convenient and easy-to-use resource for individuals with divorce, custody, and child support cases.
This resource, accessible online at any time, will reach a wide audience and will improve access to justice in the District. The interactive interviews can also be used by litigants on the computers made available in the Family Court Self-Help Center, freeing up the valuable time of the Self-Help Center staff so that they can focus on helping pro se individuals complete more complicated pleadings.
D.C. Bar Voices got the exclusive on the launch from Lise Adams, managing attorney and family law expert on staff at the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program.
DCBV: Washington D.C. has more lawyers per capita than any other city—are that many individuals really representing themselves in family law cases?
LA: Yes. It is true that we live in a city filled with highly trained lawyers, but D.C. is also home to 110,000 residents living in poverty, a number which sadly includes nearly one-third of all District children. For families struggling to survive, accessing and affording the services of an attorney is often not an option. In 2012, 84% of those filing a Domestic Relations case in D.C. Superior Court were self-represented.
DCBV: Can you explain how this tool will help non-lawyers?
LA: We designed the interface for use by individuals without any legal knowledge or expertise. The format is simple and streamlined, and because it is an interactive program the questions adjust with each answer that the user provides. When an interview is unable to accommodate a litigant for any reason—where the user’s responses indicate that he or she needs additional information or assistance, or the case is too complicated to be captured in a form pleading—the litigant is directed to the Family Court Self-Help Center at D.C. Superior Court for in-person assistance.
DCBV: What prompted the Pro Bono Program to take on this project?
LA: The D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program is constantly exploring and developing initiatives to improve access to justice in the District. In July 2009 the D.C. Bar Board of Governors created the D.C. Bar Family Law Task Force to develop recommendations to expand access to justice and improve the administration of justice in the two branches of the Family Court of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia where indigent parties do not have a right to appointed counsel—Domestic Relations and Paternity and Child Support.
Members of the Task Force conducted extensive research and developed a set of recommendations that included developing tools designed to increase the number of unrepresented litigants able to complete their own pleadings and understand their legal matters without the assistance of lawyers. These pro se services greatly increase the efficiency and capacity of legal services providers to serve more and more individuals and families in need.
The Pro Bono Program manages the content for LawHelp.org/DC and has the specialized expertise needed to develop such interactive interviews, so we were uniquely situated to leverage our substantive and technical know-how to take the lead role on this project.
DCBV: Does the Pro Bono Program offer any other resources for pro se litigants?
LA: The Pro Bono Program is the District’s largest provider of pro se resources. Our court-based resource centers, which are open steps away from the courtrooms where cases are heard, serve approximately 7,000 people each year. We also offer monthly advice and referral clinics at Bread for the City’s Shaw and Anacostia locations where unrepresented individuals can meet with an attorney one-on-one and receive brief information and advice that will help them proceed on their own. (Where a case is identified as needing more extensive services, it can be referred to our full-representation clinics). We also offer monthly workshops for pro se litigants with uncontested divorces and child custody matters. Finally, in addition to the interactive pleadings, we offer a wide range of information sheets, frequently asked questions, and fillable forms in a user-friendly format on LawHelp.org/DC.
DCBV: Can my firm or organization help to promote the interactive pleadings?
LA: We hope that our partners and friends at firms, organizations and agencies across the District will help us spread the word that LawHelp.org/DC is here for individuals who cannot access or afford the services of an attorney. This is an incredibly powerful resource that really can transform lives and help decrease the access to justice gap in DC.
DCBV: With this interactive service, are pro bono and low-bono attorneys still needed in D.C.? Does the Pro Bono Program provide any opportunities for lawyers who are interested in family law pro bono matters?
LA: This service assists individuals in completing standard court pleadings for cases with relatively straightforward fact patterns—it is not capable of handling more challenging family law matters. This new service will be able to help some self-represented individuals, but there is an incredible client need in this area.
Although the Pro Bono Program offers an extensive range of clinics and full representation services, more pro bono attorneys are desperately needed to assist with contested family law cases. We offer comprehensive training, mentorship, and support to make pro bono service easy for our volunteers. Last year, the Pro Bono Program placed 25% more family law matters with pro bono attorneys than in 2012. I encourage your readers to visit our volunteer webpage to find out how to get involved.
Lise Adams co-manages the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program’s Advocacy & Justice Clinic and oversees the family law activities and other projects that deliver pro bono legal information, advice and representation to low-income individuals and families in the District of Columbia. Lise was a Pro Bono Program staff liaison on the D.C. Bar Family Law Task Force.