The State Bar Association of North Dakota Fall 2015 Gavel Magazine - Page 23

Court System Continues Work to Help Self-Represented Litigants MIKE HAGBURG Attorney at Law When Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle welcomed new lawyers to the bar at the conclusion of September’s admission ceremony, he urged them to volunteer to provide pro bono legal services. “Notwithstanding the relative prosperity of the state, there remains a great need for civil legal services in our country and in our state,” he said. “It is a tradition for lawyers to help those in need.” The court system itself is continuing its efforts to reach out to the public and provide assistance to people seeking access to the courts. The North Dakota Legal Self Help Center is now in its second year and Community Access Coordinator Catherine Palsgraaf was recently joined by paralegal Melissa Hamilton on the center staff. The center exists to help the increasing number of self-represented litigants who are using the court system. “As Chief Justice VandeWalle says, no one should be denied access to the justice system because they can’t afford a lawyer or choose not to hire a lawyer,” said Palsgraaf. Palsgraaf said the great majority of people who contact the center – generally more than 100 every month – are seeking to represent themselves in court because they cannot afford an attorney. Palsgraaf. “The vast majority of requests in my six months as coordinator have been for these types of forms.” While the center staff is allowed to assist people by explaining the court system and answering questions about court processes, rules forms and legal terms, they cannot provide any legal advice or representation. While the forms are intended for use by self-represented litigants, they can also be a resource for attorneys – especially those providing limited scope representation to otherwise self-represented litigants. By providing help to self-represented litigants, the center also provides a service to the court system. The Minority Justice Implementation Committee and the Joint Procedure Committee are currently working on amendments to Civil Procedure Rule 11 and Rule of Court 11.2 intended to simplify and clarify the rules for limited scope representation by attorneys. Limited scope representation has been allowed by these rules and Professional Conduct Rule 1.2 since 2009 but the MJIC found that limited scope representation has been little used. “Self-represented litigants often have difficulty preparing and filing documents and meeting procedural requirements,” said Palsgraaf. “This can cause congestion and delay in and out of court.” Contact information for the center is posted on the North Dakota Supreme Court website and can be accessed by following the “Self Help” link that is found on the left side of every page of the website. Most people contact the center by phone: the number is 701-348-1852. One of the main resources offered by the center is a collection of legal forms. Currently the center maintains family law forms for simple divorce, child support review and parenting time assistance. In addition, there are power of attorney, guardianship, conservatorship, small claims, name change, informal probate, protection and restraining order, and eviction forms posted on the center website. “I’m currently developing forms for establishing parenting responsibility between unmarried parents and divorce forms for non-summary or contested divorces,” said Judge Donovan Foughty, the chair of the MJIC, said that the committee was seeking to expand the use of limited scope representation because this could help minorities and the poor get better access to the legal system. He said the proposed rule changes were intended to make it easier for attorneys to provide limited scope representation. “A self-represented citizen might seek a limited-scope arrangement in which an attorney performs research, drafts a complaint, or makes an appearance for the client, without providing additional services,” explained the MJIC in its annual report. “This arrangement allows self-represented litigants to take advantage of at least some affordable attorney services and creates flexibility for attorneys, who may offer a variety of services at designated prices.” FALL 2015 23