Self Help Video for Litigants Without Lawyers
October 31, 2008 by Loretta Oleksy
The future of your family life is at risk. A considerable portion of your wealth is up for grabs. You are in a completely unfamiliar arena where your fate will be decided by people you don’t know and who know nothing about you.
That’s the scenario faced by many citizens who go into court on a domestic relations matter without an attorney. To ease that anxiety, the Supreme Court’s Division of State Court Administration had produced a new educational video for self-represented litigants in family law cases. It is now available for distribution.
State Court Administration, in partnership with the Indiana Bar Foundation, produced the video under contract with Indianapolis production company, Innovative. The video is intended to help litigants make informed decisions regarding legal representation, provide resources for securing their own lawyer, and provide important information about the legal process and their responsibilities if they choose to represent themselves. The video promotes informed decision-making and does not encourage self-representation. Executive Director Lilia Judson explained, “We are cognizant of the challenges presented to trial courts by ever-increasing numbers of self-represented litigants, and we anticipate that this video will encourage many litigants to seek legal representation. We also recognize that some litigants will still choose to proceed without an attorney. We hope the video will ease the burden on courts and court staff by answering some of the litigants’ most common questions and by setting clear expectations for courtroom behavior and decorum.”
The video is broken down into thirty short and easily digestible chapters to avoid “information overload” for litigants. The length of each chapter is approximately one to three minutes. Topics include: general responsibilities and court requirements, information on specific pleadings and hearings, children and divorce, alternative dispute resolution, preparing for court, and duties after final hearing. Litigants are advised to view the video in sections as they progress through the stages of their case even though it is possible to view the entire video in one sitting.
An abbreviated version of the video made its debut at the September Judicial Conference. Excerpts were shown at an early bird session on judicial branch employee education and were also available for viewing in the JTAC demo room. Senior Judge Barbara Harcourt, who conducted the session, said: “I think the video is an exceptionally well presented overview of procedures in domestic cases. It should be very helpful to all litigants especially those who are considering self-representation or who have decided to represent themselves. One useful feature is the film’s division into repeatable, small, easily understood chapters. The overall professional appearance of the product enhances the message it delivers.”
State Court Administration created a statewide version of the video in the initial phase of the project that provides general information applicable to litigants in any Indiana county. This version is posted on the Supreme Court website. Additional videos have been customized for local use in three Indiana counties: Johnson, Lake, and Monroe. These counties were chosen from a pool of eight applicants. They have each developed a local plan for using the video by integrating it into their current programming for self-represented litigants.
Lake County currently provides assistance in form preparation through the Domestic Relations Counseling Bureau and the Clerk’s office and twice weekly offers a Court-sponsored legal clinic in Superior Court 3. The judges will integrate the new video into the continuum of assistance currently provided to self represented litigants.
Lake Circuit Court Judge Lorenzo Arredondo, Lake Juvenile Court Judge Mary Beth Bonaventura, and Lake Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Tavitas collaborated on the project. Each Judge expects the joint venture will greatly benefit Lake County litigants. “It is our hope that the forms we currently supply, together with the video, will answer the most commonly asked questions and will better prepare litigants to avoid the common mistakes that frustrate them and keep them from making it smoothly through the process,” said Judge Arredondo.
Judge Tavitas agrees and plans to use the video to educate litigants utilizing the court-sponsored free legal clinic in her court. “The video will be a helpful tool in creating a better understanding of the legal process and providing useful information to all litigants,” she said. “We can best assist our self-represented litigants by encouraging them to reference the information on the website,” says Judge Bonaventura. “It’s a step they can take to begin the process of becoming better informed.”
The judges plan to post the video on the county’s web site so that litigants can view it prior to arriving at the court house or government center. Lake County estimates that over 1200 litigants will view the video in the first year of use.
Johnson County will incorporate the video into the assistance provided to self represented litigants through its ADR plan. They will also use it in the administrative facilitation session that is required in all dissolution cases when both parties are self-represented. “While every person has a right to represent themselves in a court of law, the reality is that very few are adequately prepared to do so,” said Johnson Circuit Court Judge Mark Loyd. “It is my experience that, in most circumstances, individuals do not fully explore their options for professional legal assistance. They decide to represent themselves in court without a full understanding of the legal standards to which they will be held. It is my hope that this video will be an effective tool in providing self-represented litigants with the information they need to make more informed decisions in advance of their court appearances.” Johnson County estimates that approximately 800 litigants will view the video in the first year of use.
Monroe County provides assistance to self-represented litigants through its ADR plan and through use of preliminary hearings designed to help self-represented litigants understand the legal process. The judges also advise litigants of mediation options and other services available to them. ”Monroe County is grateful to be a part of the pro se video project,” said Monroe Circuit Court Judge Francie Hill. “We are experiencing a growing number of self-represented litigants who don’t understand how to obtain or modify divorce or custody orders. Our bar association plans to help distribute the videos at no cost, and we will post the video on our county government web site.”
A committee of judges and bar representatives is currently working on expanding services to self represented litigants in Monroe County. Their distribution plan for the video includes partnerships with local libraries, the District 10 Pro Bono Project, Legal Services Organization, and IU Law School at Bloomington. Monroe County estimates that 200-400 litigants will view the video in its first year of use.
State Court Administration has earmarked additional funds to customize the video for more counties in the near future. For more information contact Family Court Coordinator Loretta Oleksy at 317.233.0784 or firstname.lastname@example.org.