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When the Self Help Law Center moved several blocks across downtown Billings earlier this month, its clients quickly followed. Twenty-three came in the first day.

Statewide, about 800 people a month are using the five civil, self-help law centers in the Court Help program of the Montana Supreme Court.

“The majority of people we serve are low income and the reason they are seeking help is because they cannot afford an attorney,” said Patt Leikam, the sole employee at the Billings center that also relies on Ameri-Corps staff and volunteers. “We generally see the average customer two or three times as they go through the process.”

A performance audit presented this summer to the Interim Law and Justice Committee found broad agreement among judges, clerks, lawyers and self-represented litigants that the Court Help project improved the judicial process.

The Legislative Fiscal Division auditors report that court clerks commented on litigants served by Court Help being less frustrated, more organized and having a better idea of what to expect from the clerk and the court.

A portion of the audit focused on the Yellowstone County District Court’s monthly law and motion clinics in which indigent self-represented litigants meet with local lawyers who donate their time. From January through May, these clinics served 159 self-represented litigants in uncontested family law cases. This judicial district is the busiest in the state with 1,891 family law cases filed last year.

Ninety percent of the self-represented litigants served at these clinics reported that the volunteer attorney assistance received at these clinics “greatly improved” their ability to finalize their family law matter.

Judges reported measurable time savings for the court resulting from great improvement in the completeness and accuracy of documents submitted by self-represented litigants.

The clinics involve collaboration between the Yellowstone Area Bar Association, Montana Legal Services, the 13th Judicial District and the Yellowstone County clerk of court office.

“It’s truly a community of people who believe in equal access,” said Patty Fain, statewide pro bono coordinator for Court Help.

The 2011 Legislature appropriated $296,000 per year for Court Help. The Judicial Branch has requested an appropriation for the upcoming biennium of $350,000 a year. The increase would sustain Court Help programs that have been funded by grants that are running out.

“Without a doubt, the biggest challenge the court system faces is providing access,” said Mike McGrath, chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court.

It’s becoming more difficult for more Montanans to find legal representation in civil matters, McGrath said. In some Montana jurisdictions, up to 80 percent of family law cases have had at least one party trying to represent himself or herself.

Lack of money to hire an attorney is a major factor. However, McGrath said people may have trouble finding an attorney to take their case. In some communities, so few attorneys practice family law that there aren’t enough to meet demand.

“It’s really a big challenge, and it’s not just in Montana,” McGrath said last week in an interview from Helena.

Court Help is an effort to meet that challenge.

“Without this program, our District Courts, particularly in the really busy districts, get bogged down,” McGrath said.

Most Gazette readers may never need to or want to represent themselves in court. However, they still benefit from Court Help. By helping self-represented litigants understand the court process, Court Help reduces errors and delays and keeps the justice system operating more effectively for all Montanans.

We call on state legislators and those seeking legislative seats to support Court Help when the state’s biennial budget is set this winter.