A young woman with her hair tied back in a ponytail takes a break from filling out a stack of divorce and custody documents to reassure her baby, who plays in a car seat perched atop a chair. The woman coos at the child, then directs her attention back to the paperwork and the one person in the room focused on helping her make sense of the documents. The mother asks if she should write on the custody filing that the child’s father is violent.
“Don’t bash him,” responds Sheri Taylor, coordinator at the Missoula Self Help Law Center.
Taylor offers to help the woman transfer an order of protection from another state. She also suggests the woman answer the questions on the form as simply as possible.
That form is just one of hundreds Taylor keeps filed in a massive brown bookcase that spans much of the center’s west-facing wall. There are stacks of packets tailored to help customers through everything from divorce to custody disputes, declaring bankruptcy to divvying up the estate of a deceased relative. Each packet constitutes something like a Cliff’s Notes for a particular issue to help those who can’t afford proper legal representation and need to navigate their own way through often complicated civil proceedings. Taylor, a paralegal, can’t offer formal legal advice, but she can guide customers through the center’s considerable library of resources.
Just as the mother with the baby sets to work on the form, another woman carrying a child arrives in the doorway of the center’s second floor office inside the Missoula County Courthouse. This mother tells Taylor she needs a divorce—fast.
“Is the other party in agreement?” Taylor asks.
“I don’t know,” the woman responds.
Taylor leads her to the appropriate packet of information and they start to review the materials.
This is a typical afternoon at Missoula’s Self Help Law Center—a steady stream of locals who, absent the means to hire an attorney, have come here in hopes of learning enough to guide themselves through the legal system. They represent a growing number of Montanans who are not only being asked to play the role of lawyer during some of the most critical decisions of their life, but are also hampering a legal system unable to fairly accommodate them.
In criminal proceedings, the accused has a right to request a lawyer be provided to them at no cost. People engaged in civil lawsuits, however, such as custody battles, fights with creditors and family disputes, have no such right.
High attorneys’ fees mean many end up representing themselves. Even an amicable divorce can run at least $5,000. Nearly 75 percent of the law center’s customers report household earnings of just $30,000, below the federal poverty guidelines for a family of four.
Meanwhile, the courts are already clogged with civil lawsuits. Montana district courts topped 50,000 legal filings for the first time in 2012, with one in five involving family law. More than half of those cases—roughly 6,500—had at least one party not represented by legal counsel.
The Montana Supreme Court has long recognized the problem. While the Montana and United States constitutions require that all people receive equal treatment under the law, a report released last month by a court-appointed task force found the system still fails to deliver on those fundamental mandates. Titled “The Justice Gap in Montana,” it found that roughly nine of 10 low-to-moderate income people with legal needs didn’t receive help in 2013.
The Missoula Self Help Law Center stands as one of the few entities working to narrow that gap, despite not being able to offer the one thing needed most: case-specific counseling.
“Some of the difficulty with the Self Help Law Center is they can’t really give legal advice,” says Missoula County District Court Standing Master Leslie Halligan. “It’s like self help—you read the manual to fix your washing machine, and you hope you don’t get electrocuted along the way.”
While the center has made a difference, some believe a reliance on this do-it-yourself representation is not enough.