IOLTA Feature

IOLTA Leadership and Funding for Self–Help

IOLTA programs provide leadership as well as funding. Both are important to wise grant–making and effective use of limited resources. But the depth of experience and understanding that comes from long focus on how to expand and improve civil legal aid to the poor has resulted in special leadership from IOLTA programs in new areas. Over the years, that leadership has helped establish and test innovations in such areas as technology and hotlines, and, in recent years, assistance for Self Represented Litigants (SRLs).

IOLTA programs bring a unique perspective to such efforts in light of their experience in supporting a wide range of civil legal services and funding multiple projects in the delivery system. Regarding self–help, that perspective reinforces the need to approach innovations as part of a continuum of services. These programs must entail an understanding that some persons can handle some matters themselves, that some just need limited legal assistance and that some need full representation.

The Multiplier Effect

When considering a continuum of services, IOLTA programs are in a good position to promote the multiplier effect of connecting assistance for self–represented persons to others services. Whether through direct involvement of IOLTA leaders in the development of a program or via creative grants, IOLTA programs can encourage triage and assistance in more places where SRLs seek help. Examples of these places are: public libraries where many people go for legal information, courthouses where SRLs assume they can get help from court staff and judges, community agencies that help with the human needs often associated with legal problems, and legal aid providers which have long offered pro se clinics.

Approaches to Assistance for SRLs

Below is a general summary of various approaches IOLTA programs throughout the U.S. employ to support efforts to assist SRLs (see Figure 1). Though focusing on IOLTA involvement, it should be noted that courts, legal aid providers, bar associations, libraries, self–help centers and others are also participants in the efforts to enhance help for SRLs, sometimes in collaboration or coordination with IOLTA programs. In some states, personnel to help SRLs are funded by the judicial branch; in other places independent or court–based self–help centers receive support from IOLTA funds.

Figure 1
Grants ForServices Provided
General Legal Aid ProvidersStaff or pro bono attorneys assist self–represented litigants with filling out forms and other information to move forward in their case.
Self–Help WebsiteProvides the public with general legal information, links to find a lawyer or local self–help center, referrals to community organizations and/or interactive court forms.
Self–Help CentersNon–lawyers provide general information to SRLs and help them navigate interactive self–help websites.
Partnership funding with legal aid providersJoint pro se assistance projects with the courts.
Partnerships with the justice systemAddress policies related to SRLS, including unbundled legal services.
EducationDevelop curricula to educate judges and court staff on best practices for handling SRLs or train librarians to help SRLs find the legal information they need.
TechnologyDevelop legal information web sites, forms, document assembly, mobile applications and other SRL tools.

Learning from Effective Programs and National resources

The wide range and breadth of support offered through the listed approaches, not only makes a difference to SRL projects in individual states but also allows IOLTA programs to learn from one another. For example, Michigan was influenced by work in many other states, including Illinois and California. We benefitted from the pioneering efforts of Illinois Legal Aid Online, which has had a model web site for more than a decade after start–up and ongoing funding from the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois (the Illinois IOLTA program). In California joint legal aid/court self–help programs were supported by partnership grants through the Legal Services Trust Fund of California (California IOLTA program) and the California Administrative Office of the Courts.

National resources can also prove invaluable. SelfHelpSupport.org offers support to the growing network of self–help program practitioners, an online clearinghouse of information relating to self–representation, and a collection of SRL models from around the country. In addition, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) helped create a base and climate from which to build SRL programs. LSC built this foundation by supporting statewide web sites that provide clients with legal information and through awarding Technology Innovation Grants (TIGs) that promote SRL innovations.

The Michigan Experience

The Michigan experience is one example of how one state can learn from many others. Among the most important lessons learned in creating the Michigan Legal Help program (MLH) were: 1.) assuring the many stakeholders who encounter the self–represented that they were part of the process to design and implement a program, and 2.) providing sufficient funds to adequately support that process. In addition, MLH took a comprehensive approach to build key parts concurrently. In other words, coupled with an interactive web site and affiliated local self–help centers, educational curricula for courts and libraries were designed with the help of experts and advisory committees of judges, judicial educators and top librarian leaders.

The funding needed for these curricula was not large but the impact was. Librarians all over the state now know how to help users find what they need through the MLH web site and are trained in providing information only and not legal advice. Like libraries, courts see an increasing number of SRLs every day, but some judges may have incorrectly thought they could not offer any guidance to the SRL and still remain neutral. Now, best practices for handling SRLs are contained in three court curricula that will be a regular part of training for judges and court staff, and an SRL educational module is part of ongoing librarian training.

The Interactive Web Site and Affiliated Local Self–Help Centers

The heart of MLH is an interactive web site (supported largely with IOLTA funds) and affiliated local self–help centers (supported in part by IOLTA funds). The self–help centers are "affiliated" with MLH to promote using the web site content rather than recreating it locally and to benefit from MLH resources such as attorney staff developing and updating content, as well as training, webinars and a list service for center staff. To date, there are 7 local MLH self–help centers. Before MLH, there were more than 150 individual non–commercial self–help web sites in the state where lack of resources or turnover of volunteers resulted in duplication and gaps and uneven quality.

The web site, at www.MichiganLegalHelp.org, can help any member of the general public but focuses on basic civil legal needs of low–income persons. It contains articles about the law, toolkits to help users represent themselves and forms that can be completed automatically (automated documents hosted by Probono.net) when a user answers questions in a simple interview. Users can also conduct a search to find a local lawyer, a self–help center or a relevant community agency. The web site employs plain English at a 6th grade reading level, is now posting Spanish content and is using Live Chat staffed by pro bono law students. Content continues to grow, and in the first year since MLH launched, more than 250,000 persons have been helped.

Collaboration

MLH launched after a two year pilot project created in 2010 by then Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Marilyn Kelly. She appointed the author (an IOLTA director) as co–chair of a statewide task force to expand and coordinated assistance for the self–represented. Over 100 persons worked with the task force, including 1/3 from the courts and many from legal aid. The task force chose a legal aid program to manage the project under a model that used paid professional lawyer staff (not volunteers). This model assures a high quality product that users and courts will trust and results in a continued commitment to the effort by a broad range of stakeholders.

In turn, the MLH has become a respected part of the overall delivery system, inviting continued innovation and connections between stakeholders who have and will continue to work together. This centralization and coordination also helps minimize gaps and duplication of self–help resources and maximize the way self–help relates to other services. While many others played important roles, IOLTA leadership and funding contributed to this result in Michigan, as they have and should continue to in many other states.

Linda Rexer has been Executive Director of the Michigan State Bar Foundation since 1987 before which she was a Managing Attorney for a legal aid program. She is a past President of NAIP, past Trustee of NCBF and a past member of the ABA Commission on IOLTA. She has served as Co–Chair of the ABA–NAIP Joint Technical Assistance and Meetings Committees. She has also served on various state and national groups, including the ABA Task Force to Revise the Civil Legal Aid Standards, LSC's Performance Criteria Committee and the state bar of Michigan's Committee on Justice Initiatives.