News

New Family Law Interactive Tool Gives Clients Access to Legal Help

February 3, 2014

From 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, the Family Court Self-Help Center at the D.C. Superior Court is bustling with customers. Most are sitting down to talk with a staff or attorney volunteer at the center as the volunteer drafts their pleading; other unrepresented litigants are tapping away at the free computers available at the center.

Each year about 8,000 customers walk through the clinic’s doors. The service being offered is invaluable, but the demand is high. To meet the demand, the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program launched a new online tool in January aimed at helping unrepresented parties in family law cases. The new tool offers six interactive online interviews that guide pro se litigants as they fill out their form pleadings in divorce, custody, or child support cases.

“The D.C. Bar Pro Bono program is always looking for ways to fill the gaps in legal services. Not everyone has the ability to get a lawyer, so the new online interactive interviews work like Turbo Tax forms and provide legal information that will better equip people to represent themselves,” said Monika Kalra Varma, executive director of the Pro Bono Program. “In addition, with access to technology as great as it is now, we can reach a larger number of people and empower them as they navigate the legal system.”

The interviews are simple, asking people yes or no questions like “Do you have a D.C. child support order?” and “Do you have a copy of the most recent child support order with you right now?” As the questions become more involved, the Web site offers answers to commonly asked questions. For example, the question “Has there been a major change since the existing D.C. child support order was entered?” is paired with a link that answers the question of what is considered a major change.

At the end of the interview, the information is displayed as a printable document and acts as a formal court pleading that can be filed with the D.C. Superior Court. Those who need additional assistance are directed to the Self-Help Center, a free walk-in clinic that provides unrepresented parties with general information and guidance in family law matters such as divorce, custody, visitation, and child support.

Christopher M. Locey, a family law attorney at Kuder, Smollar & Friedman, PC, knows all too well the needs of the family court and its clients. In addition to his professional experience, Locey has volunteered at the Self-Help Center, is a mentor at the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program’s Advocacy & Justice Clinic, and is a trained attorney volunteer negotiator in the Domestic Relations Branch of the Superior Court. 

“I’ve seen how many people there are out there who need this help,” Locey said. The online interviews complement the center’s work and provide pro se litigants with even greater access to significant legal tools.

“The wonderful thing about this is how accessible it is. By being on the Internet, people can do it regardless of what their work schedule is, any time of day, weekends, day or night. They can do it quickly and easily,” Locey added. Another great advantage is it allows clients to pause the interview if they realize they need more information to finish the pleading.

The online tool fulfills a recommendation by the D.C. Bar Family Law Task Force. For more than three years, the Pro Bono Program has worked with the support of other legal services providers to develop and conduct quality testing of the interviews. The new resource is funded by the D.C. Bar Foundation and can be accessed at www.lawhelp.org/dc/self-help-forms.