By: Tierra Ragland
One of the mission pillars of the Charlotte School of Law is to serve the community. Part of that mission focuses on access to justice for traditionally underserved populations. This population is, generally, low-income. The clinical legal education, the student Pro-Bono projects, and the Access to Justice Immigration and Self Help Center courses all provide opportunities for students to gain valuable experience and provide access to justice to the local community. As a member of the Civil Rights Clinic and a student who has taken both Access to Justice courses, I have valued these experiences. They have helped shape my passion for service to the community and encouraged me to pursue a career in public interest.
As a part of the Access to Justice: Self Help Center course, students have to complete thirty hours working in the Mecklenburg County Courthouse Self Serve Center and teach a community legal clinic to deliver information to self-represented litigants in preparation for divorce and child custody cases. As law students, we are not allowed to give legal advice. However, we provide much-needed legal information to individuals who are not represented by attorneys for various reasons; one of the most common reasons being lack of financial resources.
Access to Justice can include a variety of issues, such as not being able to afford an attorney, lack of access to legal information in your native language, lack of transportation, lack of understanding of legal process, and not being able to afford a certified copy of your criminal record, which costs twenty-five dollars.
Mecklenburg County is the only judicial district in the state that provides a self-serve center. The Mecklenburg County Courthouse, where the Self Serve Center is located, is in North Carolina’s 26th Judicial District. The District takes a unique approach to Access to Justice by being the only judicial district in the state that houses a self-serve center to provide assistance to pro se individuals in family law cases and a variety of other legal issues. The Self Serve Center is located on the third floor of the courthouse and is open Monday- Friday from 8:30am-12:00pm. The Self-Serve Center provides packets of legal information/documents, monthly free legal clinics, access to online research tools, educational videos, information on court processes, a list of attorneys who provide unbundled legal services,[i] and an attorney for the day program.  The filing fees for packets provided by the self-serve center range from $0-$225.
There is no state or local funding dedicated to operating the Self Serve Center and as a result there are no guarantees for the stability and continued operation of the center. The Family Court Division supplies resources to operate the Self-Serve Center, and the Self-Serve Center Coordinator manages the Center and is its only full-time staff member. The Center depends on interns and volunteers to provide the services needed. In 2013, forty-seven interns and two notaries, all of whom provided their time on a volunteer basis maintained the Self Serve Center. In 2013, the notaries and interns contributed a total of 3,784 hours, so it is vital that this volunteerism continues.
As a student volunteering with the center, my overall experience has been rewarding. I have been exposed to a diverse group of people, diverse legal issues, court process, and legal documents that I would not have been exposed to during my legal education.
The majority of the community members I assisted utilized the Self Serve Center due to a lack of financial resources. Some self-represented individuals are overwhelmed by the process of representing themselves and approach the center volunteers and interns with a wide range of emotions. Individuals have approached me very angry but also very grateful that the Self Serve Center is there to assist them with their legal needs. As a volunteer I was provided with a “cheat sheet” detailing the center’s most popular packets and important questions to ask to effectively assist those who utilize the center. On my first day a the center I was give a sample divorce and child custody packet and had to go through all the steps an actual self-represented litigants would go through to complete, including notarizing and filing the documents.
The Self Serve Center states that they provide legal information on family law issues and other legal issues—which includes “all” other legal issues. On my first day at the Center, someone asked me for legal information on Rule 60 (a), Motion for Clerical Mistake.[ii] Having taken Civil Procedure, I was familiar with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 60, however, I struggled to convey this information to someone who was not an attorney. This was not on the cheat sheet. This is an example of the wide variety of legal information requested at the Center and how non-attorney volunteers, who cannot provide legal advice, have to convey the information in a way that the average self-represented litigants will understand.
During my time at the Center I have also encountered solo practitioners who utilize the services of the Self Serve Center. This is an example of the rising cost of litigation and starting a solo practice. Even attorneys are taking advantage of the free services provided by the 26th Judicial District.
Providing Access to Justice through the Self Serve Center can bridge the gap between effective legal solutions and underserved populations. Having a program like the Self Serve Center also shows the community that the legal profession is invested in serving the underserved and vulnerable populations that have traditionally had barriers affect their access to justice.
By no means does the Self Serve Center solve all the issues surrounding access to justice but it is an effective leap in the right direction.