A Big Step Toward Access to Justice in the New Courthouse

Every day we see the progress on the new courthouse. It has been topped off, the windows are going in and its completion date is almost around the corner. It is going to be a beautiful building! What is not visible, but will be equally exciting for our community, is the planning underway to improve the experience for lawyers, litigants, and the public in how business is conducted inside the building. Among the many improvements in the new courthouse will be small conference rooms outside of every courtroom that can be used by lawyers, litigants, and the public so that negotiations or attorney/client discussions do not occur on hallway benches as they must in the current courthouse. In the lobby there will be monitors to direct litigants and lawyers to the right courtrooms and an information booth staffed by court personnel when people need additional information. Separate hallway and elevator systems will allow defendants in custody to be transported to courtrooms without being paraded through the public hallways in shackles. The public service counters will be consolidated into one area with the goal of reducing wait times and providing better customer service. The CourtCare space will be much larger and will accommodate more children allowing them to be spared from courtroom trauma, drama, or boredom.

One of the highlights of the new building will be the Legal Resource Center (LRC) that will focus on providing procedural help and education to self represented litigants (SRLs) across all case types as well as providing the resources for legal research. At least one side is unrepresented in over 85 percent of family law cases. Both sides are unrepresented in a majority of small claims and landlord/tenant cases, and in other civil cases, one side is unrepresented in close to a quarter of the cases. The number of SRLs trying to navigate the justice system is a tremendous challenge to access to justice. While the ideal would be that all litigants have access to a lawyer, and while we applaud the multiple efforts of the Bar to fill the gap, we know that volunteer efforts cannot meet the demands. To that end, in designing the new courthouse, we included a Legal Resource Center with a goal of providing procedural assistance to SRLs across all case types. Last year the Oregon Legislature gave us the green light for creating a LRC by passing a bill that expanded the court's authority to use court facilitators in all case types and allowing Multnomah County to use law library funds for a LRC.

Our plan is that the LRC will provide educational opportunities, assistance with legal research, and facilitators who can provide procedural assistance and referrals as well as help filling out forms correctly. The focus will be on meeting the needs of SRLs but the center will serve the legal community and general public as well. Basic legal research materials will be available online to lawyers and the public. And hard (book) copies of current statutes will be readily accessible if needed. Knowing that people learn in different ways, we anticipate holding workshops on basic legal concepts - what is a complaint? What is an answer? How is service accomplished? Our goal is to have a multitude of ways to assist SRLs.

We would not have gotten this far without solid support from access to justice partners - the MBA, the OSB, the legal aid community, and Multnomah County leadership. And while the move to the new courthouse won’t happen until mid-2020, we plan to get started in the next few months by developing staffing and resources.

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