Saturday, April 9, 2011

Another Way to Receive Low-Cost Legal Help: the Pro Se Clinic

People are familiar with pro bono (donated) legal services, but there is another way to get low-cost legal help if you need it.  It's the pro se clinic, in which lawyers, law students or paralegals donate their services to help low-income people fill out the legal forms they need that help laypeople do their own footwork in court for a small fee, or free.

In a post a short while back, we discussed one of these types of pro se clinics: those that help ex-offenders fill out the paperwork to get their criminal records expunged or sealed.  However, there are clinics covering other work, too: in Lucas County, Ohio (Toledo), the Toledo Bar Association runs pro se clinics for Juvenile Court and family law and well as expungement, with plans to run them from guardianship and bankruptcy.  For more information on these, contact Pat Intagliata at 419-242-9363.  Since the help involved is direction on how to fill out and file forms, it is often restricted to uncomplicated cases.  For instance, the Lucas County Pro Se Clinic for divorce is only for cases where there are no minor children involved.  When things get complicated, clients are advised to get either a private or pro bono attorney.  In New York City, there are several projects being done for the elderly, incarcerated mothers, immigrants, the HIV positive, and in microenterprise by Volunteer Legal Services.

How do you find these in your area?  One place to look is the online directory of court pro se clinics.  These are run in the courts themselves (like a district federal court or bankruptcy, for instance).  Another is the directory of places to go for free/low cost legal help from the American Judicature Society.  You may ask the local legal aid office in your community.  You can also search google for "pro se clinic" (in quotes), and the name of your city or the type of law you are dealing with, such as bankruptcy or divorce.  Or, you could contact your local bar association. Another possibility is a local law school--sometimes, their students will fill out forms under the supervision of their professors.

***Important: Because a clinic is "pro se" doesn't necessarily mean it's free or low-cost.  "Pro se" just means that it helps you do your own legal work.  Commercial, for-profit companies may do these clinics, too.  When you contact and ask them, ask HOW MUCH it will cost you.  Don't assume it's free or low-cost.

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