Michelle Barclay, Judicial Council/AOC Division Director for Communications, Children, Families, and the Courts recently spoke with legal navigator Nancy Long and attorney Gerald Williams of the Dougherty County Law Library and Southwest Georgia Legal Self-Help Center located in Albany, Georgia.
Condensed and edited for clarity
Barclay: To kick off our conversation, how long has the Law Library/Self Help Center been in place?
Long: Since June of 2018.
Barclay: What is the mission of the Center?
Long: We are here to provide access to justice. We give legal information to all people regardless of their race, creed, color, or ability to pay.
Williams: We help people navigate the legal system. We tell them what they can do. We have forms that people can fill out and we help point them in the right direction procedurally.
Barclay: How has COVID-19 affected your services?
Long and Williams (in unison): It has not affected our services.
Long: We have served almost 3,000 people since January 2020. COVID-19 did not slow us down. While we could not bring people into the courthouse, we could go outside to serve people with social distancing and masks, and we still helped people fill out papers. We had the phone calls to our center rerouted to our personal cell phones. We used Facebook to let people know information.We have a technology program that helped us, too. And sometimes we met people in different places, like the grocery store. We kept in touch with our 38+ partners. We met our partners wherever they wanted to meet us including zoom. We never closed down.
Williams: We actually just ran the figures on our service from March 1, 2020 to June 19, 2020 and we served 1,033 patrons during that time which included the statewide shelter-in-place period.
Barclay: We all know how hard Albany has been hit with COVID-19. How have all of you stayed safe?
Long: The courthouse was closed for a considerable length of time starting in March 2020 and we have been following all state and county guidelines to ensure that our patrons, staff, and community remain safe.
Williams: And we thoroughly cleaned our lovely library and Self Help Center.
Long: We stayed six feet apart from every patron. We cleaned after every patron. We sanitize every pen after use. If one of our patrons calls and asks for help, we have a special zone now and we require every patron to have a mask and gloves, to stay 6 feet apart, and to bring their own pen (if they can). We are all masked as well.
Barclay: How do you think this experience has helped you rethink how to deliver services?
Long: It gave us a lot of creative ways to deliver services. We’ve expanded the technology we use and we’ve expanded our resources, too. Personally, it has made us more assertive because we started going to stores to drop off flyers so we ended up doing a lot of marketing. We also expanded and increased keeping in touch with a lot of people which, in turn, expanded our outreach and our work.
Barclay: Tell me a little bit more about your technology.
Long: Our IT department at the Albany Courthouse has set us up with Lifesize. We can meet patrons on-line with Lifesize, patrons can make an account. We’ll also use Zoom or Facebook, we can connect them to lawyers with Equal Justice. We use our phones a lot more now. We use PeachCourt to help our patrons needing help with child support. We also help with just general information such as helping people figure out what county and judicial circuit for their case. A lot of people do not know what a judicial circuit is, so we are often helping them with internet searching. It helps patrons figure out what forms to use. We also want to start having classes. We were planning to provide classes before COVID-19. Now we want to hold some virtual town hall and Zoom classes for our patrons and the public.
Barclay: Do you think that any of the changes that you’ve made since March are here to stay?
Long: We will not go back to doing business the way we did before March 2020. We like what we are doing now better. Our goal now is to expand, expand, expand. Our new goal for this year is to expand our services to other counties. But we will still always need that personal touch. We have volunteers that will deliver flyers and we have good working relationships with many of the counties in southwest Georgia. We offer interstate and inter-county judicial proceedings assistance if needed. We had a hearing last year with a court in Massachusetts. It was awesome that everything worked. It was also great to watch the Massachusetts court and to see how they do things there. We could see all the lawyers in a conference room and our lawyers were able to question witnesses and do everything that needed to be done for a resolution.
Barclay: That is a good story. Do you have any other stories that we can end with for our readers?
Williams: I don’t have a “best” story. Each person comes in here needing individual help and we meet them where they are. Some people need more attention than others. For example, we had a man in here today who had filled out his paperwork, but the probate court said there was a problem with it. Through conversations, I was able to figure out that he had not signed the paperwork and we were able to help him solve that problem. That is a good story to me.
Barclay: I appreciate that story. The simplest things can prevent people from getting what they need from the court and you helped him figure it out.
Long: My best story is helping a father get custody of his kids. The mother had left and the children were in state custody in Florida. We’ve developed pretty close relationships with Florida in certain jurisdictions, especially in Tampa, Miami, and Miami-Dade County. The father has a low IQ, but just barely below normal. He was trying so hard and he had the support of his parents and extended family. We were able to help him get custody from the state of Florida and the kids out of foster care. He works for Miller Brewing in Albany, Georgia and he is able to support his kids. We’ve had adoption stories in which we helped people navigate to good local lawyers to get what they needed and we helped explain how the process works. We see those kids in the community and many are flourishing. One of those children just made it into UGA on the football team.