We have written before on court programs, such as the Court Service Center at the Brooke Courthouse, that aim to reduce the numbers of pro se litigants in the Trial Court. Such initiatives are crucial efforts to reduce the enormous burden placed on court staff and, moreover, equip those who may need to navigate the unfamiliar court system with valuable tools, resources, and knowledge; they should be encouraged and highlighted for their efforts to make justice more accessible to all.
Recently, we learned about another such program that does something unique: rather than offering guidance only when litigants are already part of the court system, the Suffolk County Family Court Workshop for Fathers and Mothers also aims to intervene early and enable prospective litigants to potentially avoid court altogether. Their model of empowerment through greater knowledge of the court and departments relevant to family law issues and emphasis on mediation, rather than instant recourse to a court appearance, is one that we support as a way to reduce the numbers of pro se litigants ill-prepared – through no fault of their own – to bring a case before the court.
The Suffolk County Family Court Workshop for Fathers and Mothers, an initiative started by Chief Justice Angela Ordoñez of the Probate and Family Court, is currently held at City Hall two times per month; one session invites mothers to attend, while the other is reserved for fathers. We spoke to Deputy Court Administrator Linda Medonis, who explained that the initiative was formed to provide a setting outside of the courthouse where where mothers and fathers could learn about court system and what services are available, especially to pro se litigants.
The program pulls from all areas of the legal system: as an initiative of the Probate & Family Court, representatives from her office oversee the sessions, which are also attended by volunteer attorneys, representatives from the Department of Children and Families (DCF) and probation department, and members of the Department of Revenue (DOR) Child Support Enforcement Division. They all play critical roles throughout the program in explaining the intricacies of the court, different options for conflict resolution, and the involvement in probate and family issues across different branches of government.
At each workshop, both for mothers and for fathers, attendees view a presentation led by a representative from the DCF and volunteer attorneys who instruct attendees on the basics of family law. Following this comprehensive overview – which includes topics such as appearing in court, members of court staff and what they do, how to start a case in the registry, and different legal options in court – volunteer attorneys lead individualized breakout sessions in which the program attendees can present their situation and receive one-on-one advice from the volunteers – attorneys, DOR staffers, probation officers, and Probate and Family Court representatives.
The advantages to this structure are twofold. First, with ample guidance on options for how they might proceed, individualized assistance from volunteer attorneys, and the involvement of different offices, such as probation, that introduce an element of mediation, program participants who otherwise could have entered the court as pro se litigants might not need to appear in court at all. Should any decide to pursue a case in court, they are more prepared for what to expect, allowing them to better follow court protocols and procedure and thereby increase their chances for a smoother court experience for themselves and others. Pro se litigants who are better-equipped to handle the challenges they might face in court help to ease a burden on the entire legal system, from judges and clerks to lawyers and other litigants in court that day.
We would like to applaud those involved with this program – as well as all those who dedicate their time and energy to improving the efficiency and accessibility of the legal system. The program organizers are committed to providing the highest quality workshops possible. Workshop materials include feedback surveys both for visitors and for the volunteer attorneys who generously give of their time and expertise. The volunteer attorneys are also instructed thoroughly on their role in the proceedings before arriving. In doing so, the attorneys are able to maximize the experience for program attendees. The foresight and understanding of this program is truly laudable.
While still in its earlier stages, the Suffolk County Family Court Workshop has already made a difference and continues to expand. Deputy Administrator Medonis said that growth is steady, and they are hoping to expand more into the communities. “Throughout this year, there has been a real focus on access to justice for all,” added Medonis. “In some situations, that means that there are citizens who are not able to retain an attorneys. Our longer-term goals are to make sure that pro se litigants can become more self-sufficient and overcome barriers. We also want to connect attorneys who are ‘getting their feet wet’ with some of these litigants – essentially connecting those who want to help with those who need it.”
We look forward to watching its progress as it works with prospective litigants in an emotionally challenging and complex area of the law. Through its efforts, we are hopeful – as we know the program organizers and Probate & Family Court staff are as well – that more citizens of the Commonwealth can understand their options and, ultimately, all aspects of family law and the legal system at large.