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Funding boost for legal self-help centers

STORY BY MARY SCHENKEL (Week of May 25, 2023)
Photo: Hope Woodhouse, Ellen Kendall, Meredith Egan, Jeff Petersen, Jeff Smith, Lisa Kahle, and Ryan Butler.

New Access to Justice Legal Self Help Centers – designed to help low-income residents who are trying to deal with the legal system without a costly attorney – received unanimous support for future funding from Indian River County Commissioner at its May 16 meeting.

Clerk of Circuit Court Jeff Smith told the commission that the initiative, which is designed to aid self-represented litigants, should help reduce court backlogs and costs.

“There’s a lot of need for people to have assistance through the justice system that can’t afford it. We will be able to serve them and get them through the process. This is a great accomplishment. It’s a big thing for Indian River County,” added Smith, who will retire from his position June 30.

Two confidential Self Help Centers, which will be outfitted with legal kiosks, are expected to become operational in July. Initially, one will be located in a first-floor office at the County Courthouse, and the other in an office at the United Against Poverty UP Center. In the long term, the goal is to provide additional centers in other parts of the county. 

Prior to the commission meeting, Ellen Kendall, president of the John’s Island Community Service League, explained that pro se litigants, those not represented by an attorney, are often unaware of the correct forms to use, where to file them or the court system in general.  

Developers are currently loading the kiosks with software containing the types of forms needed to file a variety of matters such as family law, small claims and residential landlord/tenant disputes. Once completed, forms can be filed through the kiosks as well.

The kiosks will also have connectivity to enable short conversations via Zoom with pro bono attorneys or, in some cases, to appear in matters. Litigants will be charged the minimal amount of $1 per minute in 15-minute increments, up to a maximum of one hour for attorney consultations.   

Smith requested, and commissioners agreed, to allocate those funds currently designated to the Fort Pierce-based Florida Rural Legal Services to instead sustain the Access to Justice Self Help Centers in Indian River County.

The United Way of Indian River County (which is also the program’s fiscal agent) and the John’s Island Community Service League have provided funding for the initial operational costs, including the salary of the program director, and the John’s Island Foundation has funded the capital costs of the kiosks.

“This is a program I have long desired to establish in our county court system,” said Smith. He noted that while similar programs elsewhere are funded by tax dollars, he was pleased that this is being made possible due to a public/private partnership.

Smith said Nancy Ludo, who previously worked with him, has been hired to be the director for the program. It is anticipated that she will be at United Against Poverty two days a week and the courthouse three days a week.