Hamilton County offers help so people can represent themselves in court

Help Centers assist low-income residents

CINCINNATI – The Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court says the new Help Centers provided by the Hamilton County Clerk of Courts will be models for the nation.

The Help Centers, staffed by volunteer lawyers, are designed so people who can’t afford an attorney can represent themselves in Municipal, Juvenile and Domestic Relations courts. That's one in five Ohioans.

The Help Center for Municipal Court, located just inside the front door in Room 113, opens Tuesday morning.

“This Help Center will fill an urgent need in our community by making justice more available,” said Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval.

The Help Center focus in Municipal Court will be on civil cases. 

“Landlord/tenant, evictions, small claims, collections, garnishments -  those are our wheelhouse,” Pureval said.

Plus, advice on what to bring to court, how to dress and what to say.

People seeking help with criminal cases will be forwarded to the Public Defenders Office.

“No one in the Help Center will be representing folks in their hearings.  This is to empower our community to represent themselves,” Pureval said.

Here's how it works:

Citizens come in, sign up, get immediate help, or schedule an appointment with a volunteer attorney.

It's free.

‘You all get a big A — an A for access,” said Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, who attended a Monday dedication at the courthouse.

The impetus for the Help Center was a 2015 report commissioned by O’Connor on how to provide greater access to justice.

“For the less fortunate, that could mean avoiding time off from work, avoiding lost wages or even avoiding the loss of a job,” the chief justice said.

“We're going to see cities, counties across Ohio and I think even across the country looking at what is being done here in Cincinnati and realize that this is the gold standard,” O’Connor said.

The Help Center in Hamilton County is a joint partnership of the Clerk of Courts, Municipal Court, the County Commission and the University of Cincinnati College of Law.

The Help Center for Juvenile Court opened Monday and the one for Domestic Relations Court has been in operation for 16 months.

“Individuals who need assistance have to meet a low-income threshold in order to be able eligible for assistance — that assistance being general advice from volunteer attorneys about their case,” said Anne Lucas, who runs the volunteer lawyers  program.

Space for the center at the courthouse was created by moving hundreds of thousands of documents.

'This is a beautiful and versatile and we think is going to able a very well utilized space,” said Rob Wall, Help Center executive director. "The Help Center is going to a hub of justice here in Hamilton County."

The center will be open weekdays 8 a.m. to noon. But as the need grows and more volunteer attorneys are brought on board, that could be expanded to a full day within a year.

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