No money for lawyer? Here's an option

A new computer program is free and available to help with divorce and some other processes.

Published July 17, 2007

TAMPA - Need to file for a simple divorce but can't afford an attorney to help you sort through all the legal forms?

A new self-help computer program at the downtown Tampa courthouse is aimed at simplifying the process.

Citizens now can access and complete simple divorce, tenant eviction and small claims forms using a computer system that works a lot like self-service tax programs. The free service is available at the George Edgecomb Courthouse, 800 E Twiggs St.

The initiative is one of the ways the Hillsborough court clerk's office, judiciary and local bar are heeding a statewide call for improved courthouse access for the growing number of litigants who represent themselves.

"We're allowing the doors to be open to a good number of people this way," Clerk of the Circuit Court Pat Frank said.

In an era where individuals use the Internet to buy airline tickets and diagnose their medical problems, they also are increasingly forgoing attorneys.

Statewide, 65 percent of divorce cases and 80 percent of all family law cases have at least one self-represented party.

The Hillsborough clerk's office doesn't track the overall number of such cases, known as filing "pro se," but Circuit Judge James Barton said there has been "a significant leap."

Evidence of an increase is found at the Bay Area Legal Services' Legal Information Center at the Edgecomb courthouse, where the number of pro se litigants who got free help from the center's one attorney jumped from 2,948 in 2001 to 5,628 in 2006.

Last year, 4,577 - or 81 percent - of those visitors sought guidance on family law issues cases.

More people representing themselves means more forms that are filed wrong or incomplete, leaving clerks and case management employees to clean up the mess.

"When there's gaps in these forms, then that slows everything down here," said Barton, chairman of the 13th Judicial Circuit's pro bono committee.

Judges and attorneys approached the clerk's office with the idea of beefing up assistance.

The clerk's office found a successful operation in Palm Beach and ended up getting that circuit's computer program for free.

Officials modified the program and installed it on computers in the family law and county civil divisions. They are working to create a Spanish version.

The clerk's office also joined with Bay Area Legal Services to establish a center where volunteer attorneys are paired with people who need help with forms.

Open since March, the Family Forms Clinic has trained 80 attorneys and assisted about 200 people with paperwork related to child support, custody, alimony and visitation issues, said Bay Area attorney and pro bono manager Sheila Seig.

The free clinic is located in Suite 207 at the courthouse.

People who aren't sure which forms they need to fill out should visit the Legal Information Center first. The clinic and center both have limited hours, so call ahead to make sure they are open.

Frank said the collaboration should boost efficiency and lessen the obstacles for people short on cash.

"There is a clogging of the system if people can't move through it in an efficient way," said Harry Cohen, senior deputy clerk. "We thought that by having a central place to send people, it would at least make it a little easier for everybody."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at 813 226-3337 or cjenkins@sptimes.com.

Fast Facts:

Where to call

Help is available at the Tampa courthouse for people who are representing themselves in family law, small claims or landlord-tenant cases. Call (813) 864-2280 for information and walk-in hours for the Legal Information Center and Family Forms Clinic.