By Steph Kimbro
A recent controversy surrounding the Texas legal community and the hostility of some lawyers to provide free legal forms to self-help individuals prompted me to explore the availability of online self-help legal resources for North Carolina citizens.
In Texas, the Texas Access to Justice Commission (TAJC) wanted to release draft forms to the public for use by pro se divorce litigants. See Law.com’s article. The Texas Supreme Court published an Order for the creation of a task force that draft these forms for the public.
Members of the State Bar of Texas Family Law Section protested that the use of these forms would not be limited to people who could not afford lawyers, but to anyone who wanted to use the forms and that this was a risk to the livelihood of the family lawyers in Texas. It could even spread into other practice areas! (*gasp*) Richard Zorza has a great run down of the issue on his Access to Justice blog. Also see my post on unbundling from last fall.
There is no argument that the numbers in our public who are turning to self help options is increasing. After all, legal aid funding has been significantly cut and is limited in who they can count as qualified for services. Add that to the fact that many lawyers are still not offering payment plans, alternative fee arrangements, unbundling or more cost-effective forms of delivery that would lower the cost of turning to a lawyer for help. The result is a public that is not sure where to turn or who to trust for legal assistance.
After speaking at the Legal Services Corporation’s TIG conference a couple weeks ago, I learned that each state has taken its own approach to providing access to justice to self-help individuals. Texas’ initiative to increase access was positive, but the private bar protested. Where does the private bar in NC stand on providing legal forms to the public? Where can the NC citizens turn for self-help resources?
If we can’t volunteer our time or we know they don’t qualify for legal aid, then we should know the proper place to send them so they can help themselves. Most legal aid offices in NC are aware of these resources and collaborate actively with them. Private practitioners should as well.
To explore what we have available, the best place to start is on the website for Law Help NC which is sponsored by the North Carolina Bar Association, Legal Aid of NC, and the Legal Services Corporation. Law Help provides self-help civil law materials by topic. If forms are available, the site will link out to them with instructions for completion and filing. For example, there is a DIY Divorce Packet. Other areas of law will link to outside resources in NC and there is basic information about navigating the court system. Members of the public may even check to see if they qualify for legal aid by using an online web advisor. There is also a link to a NC Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service.
NC lawyers should know about other available forms of NC legal assistance so that we can serve the public by sending them in the right direction when they come to us looking for help.