The Franklin County (Ohio) Municipal Court has a Self-Help Resource Center (the Center) which works daily to improve the quality of court filings filed by pro se litigants, increase access to the justice system for individuals who cannot afford attorneys, and provide a positive point of contact between the Court and the community. The Center may assist visitors with civil matters but cannot provide legal advice. Most of the Center’s work includes providing assistance with applications for sealing of record/expungements, and landlord/tenant issues- specifically providing critical support and resources to individuals who appear in Eviction Court.
Due to the pandemic, in early 2020 the Court contracted with a social worker to assist court individuals facing eviction and other legal issues to identify and understand the various non-legal resources available throughout the community. The initial pilot project was built around best practices for non-lawyer navigators and held out as an example among participants in the Self Represented Litigants Network.
With support from SJI, the Court is expanding and enhancing the pilot to build on the momentum clearly demonstrated in the pilot phase of the social worker navigator program. By contracting with a licensed social worker who then supervises a team of social work interns to multiply the impact and reach of the services, the Center will provide a model to share with other courts. The Center also works to build public awareness and confidence in the services offered through media and public service announcements.
Additionally, the project is developing a research-driven screening process that will allow magistrates, financial assistance agencies, and others on site to ensure more consistent and appropriately targeted referrals. An evaluation plan is also under development, including surveys for visitors and partners, to share with stakeholders, and ultimately build a plan for sustained funding at the conclusion of the project.
In addition to helping people at court, the project has achieved some notable advancements. First, the project became an Access Point for the county’s Homelessness Prevention Network (HPN). As an HPN access point, the project can access expedited services for families facing imminent homelessness within two weeks. Second, the social worker navigator has begun coordinating with the Court’s service bailiffs to flag any risks of violence or self-harm that may place anyone present at the set out in harm’s way.
“This has been frustrating – I keep getting told ‘do this’ and then finding out that was only part of it or was not actually what I wanted to do. I feel like now I have a good understanding of what is really going on and I can make my decisions moving forward…“–Resource Center Visitor
The project has already garnered a great deal of positive feedback and attention. The project’s work with assisting restored citizens was recently featured in an article in Politico Magazine. The project has also been featured by the Ohio Supreme Court’s news publication Court News Ohio and in an article by Columbus Business First.
The Center looks forward to growing this project and hopes to continue developing a sustainable, replicable service for those facing eviction.