For the tens of thousands of Utahns who represent themselves in a court of law each year, understanding the process is becoming easier.
Last week, the state’s court system expanded its Self-Help Center program to the 1st Judicial District, which covers Box Elder, Cache and Rich counties. Residents can access a variety of legal resources online, by phone, text or e-mail to help them better understand and prepare for self-representation.
Self-Help Center Director Mary Jane Ciccarello says the program was created in 2007 in response to an increasing number of court patrons who don’t hire legal counsel but lack understanding of the legal process and how to navigate the associated paperwork.
“The court’s mission is to provide access to justice for everyone,” said Ciccarello. “So many thousands of people are trying to represent themselves but they don’t know what’s going on. They don’t know to how to handle their case.”
In a 2005 study conducted by the state, 97 percent of the 56,733 respondents in debt collection cases were self-represented and 81 percent of 12,828 divorce respondents were self-represented.
Ciccarello says she and her staff are careful not to give patrons legal advice, but rather to help them understand the many forms and procedures that make up the legal process.
The Self-Help Center is run by Ciccarello, who is a full-time attorney, and three part-time attorneys. The team answers phone calls, e-mail inquiries and even responds to text messages. The staff helps patrons understand what to do before going to court, how to prepare documents, and what to do with an order issued by the court, Ciccarello added. Assistance is available for civil matters, including adoption, paternity, divorce, custody and child support as well as domestic violence, guardianship/conservatorship, probate, landlord-tenant disputes, small claims cases and debt collection.
Funding for the program comes partially from the court system, which pays the director’s salary. The part-time staff members are paid with grant money from various sources. A weak economy, Ciccarello added, means more and more parties are self-represented and that soft money from legal foundations could dry up without notice.
“Ultimately, the goal is to go to the Legislature and ask for funding,” added Ciccarello. “We estimate that to go full time statewide, we would need three full-time attorneys.”
But Ciccarello says now is not the right time to ask legislators for more money and that the current program is stable with existing funds.
The center’s toll-free telephone number is 888-683-0009 and the text messaging number is 801-432-0898. The help line and text services are available 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Individuals can also receive assistance by e-mailing the center staff at firstname.lastname@example.org, texting 801-SHC-1TXT (742-1898) or going to www.utcourts.gov/selfhelp. Help line services are available in Spanish from 1 to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday.
The Self-Help Center provides services to all but three judicial districts in the state, which cover the Salt Lake and Utah County areas and Southwestern Utah.