Family Law Pro Bono Projects at Courthouse

January 2010
By By Judge Maureen McKnight, Multnomah County Circuit Court.

Two projects at the Multnomah County Courthouse provide pro bono assistance in the family law arena. One focuses on children and the other on parents and other adult litigants but both have the strong support of the bench and bar. These programs are currently helping almost 200 individuals each year.

The court's Children's Representation Project has been operational for approximately nine years. It is administered by Judge Susan Svetkey and results in the appointment of attorneys to represent over 100 children annually in child custody and parenting time disputes. Requests for appointment come from multiple sources and are routed to Judge Svetkey's staff who, after notice to the parties, contact volunteer attorneys about their availability given the status of the case, any scheduled hearing dates, and possible conflicts of interest. An order of appointment is then signed and copies of relevant documents forwarded to the lawyer. Eighty-five attorneys are currently on the list of volunteers.

Sometimes the representation involves the first decision about custody or parental access; other times the case involves modification issues. Sometimes one or both parents are represented but often neither parent has an attorney. Most of the cases settle, and on terms that focus on the children's best interests rather than the parents'.

Lawyers who take on these cases say they thoroughly enjoy the role and the chance to help out children in difficult situations. Many of the attorneys in the project attend and benefit from training on legal and child developmental issues sponsored by the nonprofit Child Centered Solutions, 503.546.6383, www.childcenteredsolutions.org. With high numbers of parents unable to afford attorneys and the poor economic times increasing stress in families, the bench anticipates continued growth in the need for volunteers. The involvement of newer attorneys as well as experienced practitioners is welcome. For more information or to sign up to accept appointments, attorneys can contact Judge Svetkey's Judicial Assistant, Brandy Jones, at 503.988.3060.

The Pro Se Assistance Project started in 2003 and places volunteer attorneys in afternoon clinics at the courthouse to assist self-represented litigants with family law forms and advice. The program is administered by Legal Aid Services of Oregon (LASO) and applicants must meet that firm's federally-imposed income eligibility standards. Litigants can apply at the courthouse in the Family Law Clerk's office (Room 211) or directly through LASO. Two half-day sessions are scheduled every week, each consisting of three afternoon appointments for a volunteer attorney who interviews the litigants in a small, private annex off of Room 211. Approximately 90 clients are assisted each year, with the number steadily increasing. One-quarter of those assisted are non-English speakers. LASO arranges for and compensates the interpreters.

The main focus of the work is assistance on filling out court-produced family law forms and explaining the existence and advantages of various legal options, advice that court staff is prohibited from offering. Attorneys interested in supplementing the list of 42 volunteers for this project can contact Andrea Szabo at LASO at 503.224.4086. Materials, training, and mentoring are available from LASO attorneys.