By Timur Selimovic, Georgia State University Law Intern
“One of the biggest challenges in the court system is the increasing number of self-represented litigants.
As the number of self-represented litigants in civil cases continues to grow, courts are responding by improving access to justice and making courts more user-friendly.”
Georgia courts heard approximately 800,000 cases involving self-represented litigants in 2016. In his 2017 State of the Judiciary Address, Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice P. Harris Hines stated that one of his priorities as Chief Justice is to improve the way courts assist self-represented litigants. Justice Hines recognized two common issues concerning self-represented litigants. First, self-represented litigants often lack basic legal knowledge and as a result are more likely to lose in court. Second, self-represented litigants slow courts down. More litigants are representing themselves in court, and as a result Georgia courts are working to improve access to justice and make courts more user-friendly. Four examples of this effort include the Fulton County Family Law Information Center, Fulton County Probate Information Center, Gwinnett County Self-Help Pamphlet Series, and Cobb County Family Law Workshop.
Fulton County: Family Law Information Center
The Fulton County Family Law Information Center (FLIC) was founded in the late 1990s under the leadership of then Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Thelma Wyatt Cummings Moore. Today, FLIC provides legal forms, free 30-minute legal consultations, and a free monthly workshop to clients from around the state of Georgia. Georgia superior court judges who believe that a self-represented litigant might benefit from further legal advice can encourage the litigant to inquire with FLIC regarding his or her eligibility for a free 30-minute consultation. In 2015 and 2016, FLIC averaged 1,293 free 30-minute consultations per year, although the total number of individuals who benefitted from all FLIC services is much higher. Through a joint partnership between FLIC and Atlanta Legal Aid Society, FLIC consultations provide self-represented litigants with access to an attorney for 30 minutes to discuss domestic issues such as divorce, legitimation, child support, and visitation. One FLIC client (pictured in video), an entrepreneur recognized by Atlanta Business Chronicle’s 40 under 40 who recently fell on hard times, emphasized how comforting it was simply to speak to an experienced attorney in person. Kesia Green, another FLIC client, scheduled an appointment seeking advice for how to file for divorce. Green admitted that before attending the consultation she had “no idea what to do,” but that consulting with an attorney was very helpful and provided her with a clearer sense of direction.
See Ms. Green describe her FLIC experience above.
Fulton County: Probate Information Center
The Fulton County Probate Information Center (PIC) is a partnership between the Probate Court, the Estate Planning and Probate Section of the Atlanta Bar Association, and the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation. Like FLIC, PIC provides free 30-minute consultations for self-represented litigants with probate issues. In 2016, 140 individuals scheduled consultations. Consulting attorneys work on a pro bono basis and are active members of the Estate Planning and Probate Section of the Atlanta Bar Association who must have a minimum of three years of work experience. Martin Ellin, Executive Director of the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, said the PIC has a reputation for being a highly effective and trustworthy resource for helping self-represented litigants resolve delicate probate issues. As of January 2017, PIC consultations were booked through August 2017.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jane Barwick considers self-help programs to be “invaluable” to the courts. When asked why the judiciary should continue to fight for court-based self-help programs, Barwick simply said, “it’s the right thing to do, and it benefits society.”
Gwinnett County: Self-Help Pamphlet Series
In Gwinnett County, Chief Magistrate Judge Kristina Hammer Blum spearheaded the creation of a color-coded pamphlet series outlining the Magistrate Court’s main court processes. They include family violence, garnishments, abandoned motor vehicles, civil disputes, warrant applications, and landlord tenant issues. The pamphlets are written in plain English, and are largely devoid of technical legal terms. In addition to their availability in English, the pamphlets are printed in Spanish, Vietnamese, and Korean—a reflection of Gwinnett’s status as one of the most diverse counties in the southeastern United States. At their simplest, the pamphlets are intended to help litigants decide whether a particular court process is right for them. “Ultimately,” Blum said, “we want anyone who walks in [our court] to feel like they have the access to justice they deserve.”
Additionally, Judge Blum wants to encourage litigants to reconsider how they create and file pleadings. The first step in that direction has been the installation of two self-help kiosks at the Gwinnett Magistrate Court—a resource in which Judge Blum sees significant potential. Once operational, the kiosks will allow litigants to electronically generate the requisite forms for their court case. Although Gwinnett County cannot process electronic filing yet, Judge Blum is optimistic that litigants will eventually be able to file future pleadings using the kiosks. The kiosks, which offer clear and direct instructions for generating forms, are complemented by thirteen videos on the Gwinnett County Courts website, which include topics like “Should I Be Represented By a Lawyer,” “Filing a Claim in Magistrate Court,” and “Family Violence.”
Cobb County: Family Law Workshop
The Family Law Workshop assists self-represented litigants in Cobb County with divorce, contempt, paternity and legitimation, and modification issues. The workshop, held once a month, is led by attorneys from the Cobb County Bar Association’s Family Law and Younger Lawyers Sections. In 2016, 390 individuals attended the workshop. At the end of each workshop attendees are invited to complete a satisfaction survey. Notably, 80% of respondents said they found the workshop to be helpful, and approximately 75% of respondents said they would recommend the workshop to a friend. In addition to the workshop, self-represented litigants can pay $150 for a three-hour consultation with an attorney, and print or purchase forms from the Cobb County Law Library. Cobb County partially redirects the revenue earned from forms to sponsor individuals with a $150 scholarship to offset the cost of the three-hour attorney consultation. In 2016, 24 scholarships were awarded in total.
Cobb County Law Library Director Amanda Marshall said Cobb County judges unequivocally support the workshop, and other self-help programs more broadly. Cobb County Superior Court Judge Mary Staley Clark explains her firm support of self-help programs in simple terms: “Access to justice is a key component of a court system, and the more information a pro se litigant has, the better outcome for everyone: that person, their family, and the court system.”
 Self-Representation Resource Guide, Nat’l Ctr. for State Courts, (last visited Mar. 2, 2017), http://www.ncsc.org/Topics/Access-and-Fairness/Self-Representation/Resource-Guide.aspx.
 P. Harris Hines, Chief Justice, Sup. Ct. of Ga., 2017 State of the Judiciary Address (Jan. 25, 2017) (transcript available on http://www.gasupreme.us/2017-state-of-judiciary-address/).