Self-help center provides access to legal information

Law Library Manager and Southwest Georgia Legal Self-Help Center Director Laureen Kelly and Legal Navigator Darlene Kelley talk about helping provide legal information to people who might not normally have access to it. (Staff Photo: Jada Haynes)

ALBANY — The Southwest Georgia Legal Self-Help Center, located in Room 209 of the Albany-Dougherty Judicial Building, has been helping people answer legal questions for nearly three months.

The Help Center is funded through four grants and helped along by various partnerships. One grant comes from the National Center for State Courts’ Justice for All project. The project aims to support State Courts nationwide. According to Laureen Kelly, the law library manager and self-help center director, the local center was chosen to be “a pilot project to show what can be done in a rural area of Georgia that really doesn’t have much in the way of legal services.”

The pilot project has been underway since May. Kelly said “There’s a tremendous need” for accessible legal help in the area.

“Georgia Legal Services did a study last year, (called) the Justice Gap Report,” Kelly said. “They found that 86, 87 percent of lower- and middle-income people just have nowhere to get legal services. So there’s a tremendous need for what we do.”

In three months, the Southwest Georgia Legal Self-Help Center has served 1,196 people from 35 counties, 19 states and three foreign countries. As of Aug. 20, the center has seen 1,057 people from Dougherty County (90 percent of its users) and referred 499 people to attorneys.

To offset the occasional overflow of patrons, the help center is staffed with two full-time and two part-time workers. Kelley said that since Georgia State University also received a grant, the university will send law students to southwest Georgia for an “alternative spring break” next March. While there, the students will do circuit writing with Georgia Legal Services and spend some time with the help center.

According to the program’s literature, “The Help Center is available to anyone who needs assistance (navigating) the complex court system, getting legal information or legal forms, access to a computer for preparing documents or finding out the status of a case.”

At this location, trained staffers can provide information on:

— Court procedures

— Referrals to appropriate agencies

— Public access computer use

— How to begin cases

— How to answer cases

— How to collect judgments

— How to fill out forms

— How to find a destination court.

What help center staff cannot do is:

— Give legal advice

— Provide information that should be entered on one’s form

— Interpret laws, cases or court orders

— Provide opinions about a judge, court employee or private attorney.

“Self-representation is not for everybody, and we’re not here advocating that people represent themselves,” Kelly said. “It’s always better to have a lawyer. Always. But there’s situations where people can’t afford it and that’s the only option they have. So we’re trying to give them enough information that at least they can do a better job and be more prepared than if they didn’t have the information from us.”

The Self-Help Center can be reached at (229) 446-2750.

Jada Haynes is a news reporter for the Albany Herald. Writing is one of her greatest joys. Anything from a report to a feature to a homebrew RPG campaign, she'll write it up.

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