One recent visitor came with limited English-language skills, no attorney and a baffling domestic quandary: How do you divorce a woman you married in another country and haven’t seen in years?
Within minutes, he had answers — and a few legal forms required to begin his unusual journey through the courts.
The help came courtesy of the Terry R. Harris Judicial Complex Self-Help Center, a kind of informational resource for those left to navigate the courts without an attorney — a population known in legal circles as “pro-se litigants.”
Staffed by volunteers and operated in a cozy, well-lit corner of Room 101, the Self-Help Center is undergoing a makeover that will boost hours and staff, add services and generally make it a more useful place for do-it-yourselfers.
Pro-se case filings appear to be on the rise in El Paso County, and the courts are moving swiftly to accommodate the demand, said El Paso County Clerk of Court Lynette D. Collins, who attributed the trend to a shaky economy.
Her office is leading a search for two “pro-se coordinators” who will fill in gaps as needed. The full-time positions — paying $3,000 to $4,000 a month — should be filled by early January, Collins said.
A team from Leadership Pikes Peak, a local nonprofit, recently evaluated the Self-Help Center and will suggest further improvements.
The changes couldn’t come at a better time, volunteers say.
“On a busy day, there will be 20 messages waiting for us when we come in,” said Jessica Garhart, a Colorado College senior who works at the center. Volunteers are largely drawn from local colleges.
Visitors receive guidance on such things as filing for divorce and restraining orders, arranging name changes and requesting adjustments to custody arrangements — a small slice of the questions seen daily.
“People are going through tough times,” said Dawn Stallsworth, a 4th Judicial District employee who oversees the Self-Help Center.
“Home foreclosures are up, people are getting evicted, people are getting divorced — just the whole gamut,” she said.
While dispensing legal advice is strictly prohibited, volunteers say they can help save time by providing the proper legal forms and instructions on how to complete them, where to file them and information on what comes next.
“I think for a lot of people it’s comforting to have someone sit there with them while they’re going through the forms,” said Angela Komar, another Colorado College volunteer.
If someone’s legal issue is too complex, the question might be referred to an attorney for limited free guidance — a benefit of having the El Paso County Bar Association and the Pikes Peak Pro Bono Project as partners.
Courthouse interpreters are usually available for non-English speakers.
“We won’t provide you with legal advice, but we’ll provide you the resources so you can get the answers you need,” Collins said.
Contact Lance Benzel: 636-0366
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