Help Center Providing Access to Legal Services Recognized with National Achievement Award
Cincinnati, OH—The Hamilton County Municipal Court Help Center, a Cincinnati Law partnership whose mission is to increase access to justice for self-represented individuals in Hamilton County courts, recently was awarded the Justice Achievement Award from the National Association for Court Management (NACM). The award recognizes courts and related organizations for meritorious projects and exemplary accomplishments that enhance the administration of justice. The Help Center, in operation for less than a year, assists clients by providing access to limited legal advice, information, and education. Though young in “age,” the Center has made an enormous impact on the Cincinnati community, making this honor even more remarkable and rewarding.
The Help Center, a partnership between the University of Cincinnati College of Law, the Hamilton County Municipal Court and the Hamilton County Clerk of Courts, was developed to fill the gap in access to civil legal assistance. In 2015 the Supreme Court of Ohio’s Task Force on Access to Justice released its Report and Recommendations, noting that Ohio courts are filled with
individuals unable to secure legal representation in civil matters [and] are left with no choice but to navigate an unfamiliar, complex court system alone.
Additional studies found that 86% of civil legal problems reported by low-income people received either no or inadequate legal help; and 71% of low-income households experienced at least one civil legal problem in the last year.
Those legal problems include things as simple as housing. In the Cincinnati tristate, eviction rates are high. In fact, in 2017 Cincinnati had the 10th highest eviction rate in the country, according to a Cincinnati Enquirer article “Been evicted? You have a lot of company: Study finds Cincinnati area has high eviction rate, driven by escalating rents and poverty.” This could be seen through the court which has an average of 300 new eviction filings per week. An American Aid Foundation study showed that evictions can have adverse long-term impact on mental and physical health, childhood development, and the ability to secure adequate housing or credit. It was clear that something needed to be done.
A key recommendation from the Task Force’s report was the creation of court help centers across the state to assist self-represented litigants. This is how the Help Center came to be. And in its first six months, the Help Center assisted over 5,000 people, a testament to the need for the organization. A majority of visits concern small claims and landlord-tenant disputes, but over 1,000 visitors came for help with garnishments, referrals and other services. Half of the primary assistance given by the Help Center was related to forms and filings.
Magistrates and judges are now relying on the Help Center to send self-represented litigants that need assistance. And, early data indicates that the case outcomes in Municipal Court are more favorable for self-represented litigants than before the Help Center was created.
A Look at who the Center Helps
Who is taking advantage of the Help Center’s services? Interestingly, the demographics of the people who are being served are broad. The age range is especially wide. 26% of those who received legal advice were in their 30s; people in their 20s, 40s, 50s, 60s, each accounted for between 10-20% of those who received legal advice. Notably, women accounted for 63% of people receiving legal advice, and African Americans accounted for 67%. 81% of those who received legal aid had an income below 250% of the federal poverty level.
Located in front of the courthouse, the Help Center services are free, open to the public, and offered on a walk-in and appointment basis. The main areas of assistance are evictions, landlord/tenant issues, small claims, and creditor/debtor lawsuits. A full-time attorney and paralegal work at the Center, supported by law students volunteering their time.