Navigating the Maze: U.S. Court Opens Do-It-Yourself Help Desk

By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 1, 2006

CHICAGO -- When Chicago resident Wallace Bradley filed a federal employment discrimination lawsuit against a construction company, he got a quick lesson in the legal process.

After being fired in 2002, Bradley did not have enough money to hire a lawyer and he wanted to deal directly with the company himself. So he filed the suit pro se , meaning he would represent himself in court. It wasn't easy.

"The ins and outs are hard when you don't know what you're doing," Bradley said. "You're going against a company which can hire a major law firm to make you keep coming back to court again and again. It's rough."

Bradley, 53, a former gang member turned community activist who has run for Chicago City Council, said he was in the right and should have won the case. But, concerned that the judge might dismiss his suit, Bradley decided to settle out of court in 2004.

"A maze" is how many lawyers and judges describe the process of suing in federal court. But every year thousands of people such as Bradley try to navigate the process.

Now the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago has launched a program to provide free legal assistance for people in filing pro se federal lawsuits.

"I'm really glad they did that," said Bradley, sitting at a computer terminal in the federal court building recently, looking up cases for a friend. "There needs to be something done to assist people like me. A lot of people can't afford an attorney, and they are afraid of this building because they don't know how things work."

Judges and lawyers here who advocated for the help-desk program -- which was launched early last month as the District Court Self-Help Assistance Desk -- describe it as a win-win situation for all. It serves as a filter, weeding out frivolous cases or cases that do not belong in federal court, while aiding people with legitimate complaints.

"Lots of times we've had pro se complaints that are literally gibberish," said District Judge William J. Hibbler, who was involved in founding the help desk. "Trying to make heads or tails of their complaints was a big effort. There might be a kernel of a case there, but it's so poorly articulated that it gets dismissed. People need technical help to formulate complaints in such a fashion that we can deal with them."

The idea came about through conversations last fall between U.S. district judges here and the Chicago Bar Foundation, the charitable arm of the Chicago Bar Association. State and circuit courts and bankruptcy courts around the country have provided similar programs for people without attorneys, but this help desk is thought to be the first of its kind in federal court.

Sheldon H. Roodman, executive director of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, called it "highly likely" the idea will catch on in other U.S. courts. "There's been a wave of self-help desks in state courts that have proven their worth," he said. "I think federal courts will also find it a useful part of the justice system."

The Chicago Bar Foundation put up more than $100,000 to fund the program and hire the lawyer who staffs the desk full time. The lawyer, who has federal court experience, is employed by the Legal Assistance Foundation.

"This way, someone has a chance to talk to a lawyer to understand their rights and the federal court system," Roodman said. "People might come and the staff lawyer will explain they really don't have a federal case."

If the help-desk lawyer thinks there is a valid case, he or she will help prepare the complaint and related papers and filings.

"When you see people struggling so much to get their rights vindicated, we want to be able to help them do that," Hibbler said.

Staff from the nonprofit organization Illinois Legal Aid Online, which offers a Web site guiding pro se litigants through filings, also helped design and implement the help-desk program. A computer terminal specifically for litigants to access the legal aid Web site was recently installed in the federal courthouse.

"The computer asks them questions, and then you click a button and behind the scenes all the forms are filled in," said Lisa Colpoys, executive director of Illinois Legal Aid Online.

Last year, more than 1,000 pro se cases were filed in the Northern District of Illinois. Many involved employment discrimination or other civil rights issues. But there have also been cases involving patents or auto accidents.

"There's a fairly large variety where you can have federal jurisdiction," said Chicago Bar Foundation Executive Director Bob Glaves, mentioning student loans, bankruptcy and administrative issues with Social Security. He said it would be very difficult for "one attorney to be familiar with all these areas," but under the program, the help-desk lawyer has the staff and the ability to work with other lawyers.

Ed Grossman, executive director and co-founder of the Chicago Legal Clinic, added that it would be "nearly impossible" for a lay person to successfully complete and win a federal case. "It's a big long shot that anyone could wend their way through that without an attorney," he said. "It would be like me trying to take out my own kidney."

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