Toward Justice for All: Law Students Provide Needed Services, and a Statewide Template
Monday, May 18 2009
May 18, 2009
Written by Donna Emert
MOSCOW, Idaho – While providing supervised pro bono service in the Latah County Courthouse Assistance Office last summer, University of Idaho College of Law student Ashley Rokyta answered local citizens’ questions regarding landlord tenant disputes, child custody agreements, bankruptcy, small claims, and other sticky and often complex legal issues.
She also answered questions raised by those seeking to file or answer complaints for divorce.
In response, Rokyta developed a visual aid that moves divorce seekers step by step through the process. The two sets of single-sheet checklists can be e-mailed or printed. One is for filing for divorce with minor children, and the other for divorce without minor children. The tools were so effective in Latah County, they have now been adopted throughout Idaho.
Law students who provide pro bono aid, and the tool Rokyta developed, are serving the underserved: the Latah County Courthouse Assistance Office processes thousands of diverse inquiries each year. So far in 2009, 77 percent of their clientele have incomes low enough to qualify for Federally Funded Legal Aid Services, “if such service were available,” said Frances Thompson, Latah County Courthouse assistance officer, the attorney who supervises the student volunteers.
“The next 13 percent have incomes the Idaho State Bar determined too low to be able to pay full price for legal services," said Thompson. "Although the income is above abject poverty, it is too low for there to be discretionary income available for attorneys’ fees.”
Thompson, aided by the student volunteers, fills some of the gap in services for citizens who cannot afford an attorney. The office provides legal information rather than advice.
When members of the public require legal advice, they are referred to local attorneys. But while County Courthouse Assistance Office staff and volunteers do not act as surrogate attorneys, they do arm their clients with education and information aimed at streamlining their interaction with attorneys, helping them understand the court system, and clarifying the legal process. Those who seek uncontested divorces are the clients Rokyta’s visual aids were designed to help.
The task of providing necessary documentation for court proceedings can be daunting; forms and instructions can run up to 80 pages. Forms are written so self-represented (pro-se) litigants can comprehend them, but the heft of the task can be particularly overwhelming for those less literate and those for whom English is a second language.
Thompson and law student volunteers in the Courthouse Assistance Office guide clients through the process.
“Without this education and navigation, many would not be able to make it through,” said Rokyta. “Without this office, many would not have access to the courts, thus hampering the administration of justice and the integrity of the judicial system.”
“Before this experience I wasn’t positive I wanted to practice after graduation,” Rokyta said. “After the experience, I am sure I want to continue to work with the public. Many times, individuals would come into the office practically in tears, frustrated with their circumstances. It was very rewarding to have them leave the office with a much more optimistic disposition, simply by arming them with some information.”
The Courthouse Assistance Office also provides a unique educational opportunity. Law student and current Courthouse Assistance Office volunteer Cody Yoshimura said there are lessons pro bono service offers that may be difficult to find in a text book.
“Don’t get me wrong,” said Yoshimura. “We do learn a great deal of useful information in class; however, you can only simulate so much. Court assistance gives me the opportunity to work with real people and provide legal information on actual legal matters.”
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About the University of Idaho
Founded in 1889, the University of Idaho is the state’s flagship higher-education institution and its principal graduate education and research university, bringing insight and innovation to the state, the nation and the world. University researchers attract nearly $100 million in research grants and contracts each year; the University of Idaho is the only institution in the state to earn the prestigious Carnegie Foundation ranking for high research activity. The university’s student population includes first-generation college students and ethnically diverse scholars. Offering more than 150 degree options in 10 colleges, the university combines the strengths of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. For information, visit www.uidaho.edu
Media Contact: Joni Kirk, University Communications, (208) 885-7725, firstname.lastname@example.org
About the University of Idaho
The University of Idaho helps students to succeed and become leaders. Its land-grant mission furthers innovative scholarly and creative research to grow Idaho's economy and serve a statewide community. From its main campus in Moscow, Idaho, to 70 research and academic locations statewide, U-Idaho emphasizes real-world application as part of its student experience. U-Idaho combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. It is home to the Vandals, and competes in the Western Athletic Conference. For information, visit www.uidaho.edu