Going It Alone: Lone Star Legal Aid
Launches Project for Self-Represented Families
In January, Lone Star Legal Aid launched the Rural Pro Se Litigation Project in Nacogdoches and Angelina Counties. The project will provide information, advice, and access to technology for low-income people who are representing themselves in civil court proceedings. These self-represented litigants can now use a computer kiosk at the local library that will help them with document assembly, and an attorney is available at the library for brief legal advice and assistance two days a week for those who qualify for legal aid. The project is funded by a grant from the Texas Access to Justice Foundation.
The ongoing funding crisis for legal aid in Texas has forced many low-income families to represent themselves in civil legal proceedings. Currently, funding for legal aid in Texas meets less than twenty percent of the legal need in low-income communities.
LegalFront spoke with managing attorney Paula Brumbelow at Lone Star Legal Aid about the new project:
LegalFront: What are the most common legal problems of the self-represented clients you work with?
Paula Brumbelow: The majority of cases involve broad family law issues. Many of the clients seem to have been successful up to the point when they have to submit the final decree; others have problems filing decrees that involve some form of alternative services, such as when a spouse’s location is unknown. However, there are some people who don’t know where to begin at all.
Before the project started, Lone Star would receive several referrals from the courts from people who were stuck in the middle, who already successfully filed but could not get service because they needed to do a motion for alternative service or something of that nature. In the courts, final hearings are not set until the proposed decree is filed for review, so it is important the documents are correctly completed.
LF: Why did Lone Star Legal Aid [LSLA] decide to launch the Rural Pro Se Litigation Project?
PB: We really saw a need. The Texas Access to Justice Foundation [TAJF] also saw the need and had an interest in helping address it. They are the sole funders of the grant for this program, so it became a combined effort of TAJF and LSLA.
Also, the State Bar showed an interest and wanted to address the issue because courts are seeing more and more people handling matters pro se. Pro se individuals are encouraged to move forward in the judicial system, but many do not know how. The Bar saw this and the courts acknowledged needing help as well. The courts wanted people to be successful but couldn’t personally advise them.
This project is a pilot program. There are organizations with similar projects throughout the state; each is working slightly differently and all will hopefully ultimately collaborate to see what works best and what doesn’t.
LF: How many self-represented litigants are you seeing?
PB: In the two counties the project serves, Nacogdoches and Angelina, the project director, attorney Don Richardson, and paralegal and Outreach Coordinator, Cynthia Williamson, see at least five people at each location every week, people who walk in to the public libraries. Don and Cynthia spend two days, from 9:40am-4:30pm at each location, every week. We wanted to have this project set up in the courthouses, but there were many issues, the most significant being lack of space. We discovered that these pro se clients often go to the libraries for assistance so it seemed logical to host the project at those locations.
LF: How can pro bono attorneys help self-represented litigants?
PB: Pro bono attorneys can help by preparing documents, such as a petition or a pauper’s affidavit. Preparing motions for alternative service and preparing the divorce decree is helpful. They can prepare little bits and pieces along the way. Working with pro se clients allows pro bono attorneys to offer assistance through unbundled services, helping with a particular motion or order.
INTERVIEW BY Catherine Nahay, State Bar of Texas