FAIRFAX Va. (DC News Now) — From eviction hearings to custody disputes, too often Virginians are unprepared for the moment when they walk into a courtroom, approach the judge and make their case.
Now, a nearly $100,000 investment from Fairfax County is hoping to change that.
The county unveiled a Self-Help Resource Center inside the law library within the county’s courthouse on Thursday. It’s a place where people who have to deal with any number of civil disputes, can get advice on how to fill out paperwork, what documentation to provide and other legal help.
In Virginia, residents cannot get a court-appointed attorney for a civil case, and Supervisor Rodney Lusk said for people who can’t afford outside counsel, this resource can be a big help.
“We want equity in our justice system and this is one way to help ensure that,” he said. “You don’t really want to have income be the decider.”
He also emphasized how language barriers are often the cause for inequal justice, and he hopes the center can help the people in the county who speak non-English languages. He said a portion of the Franconia District, which he represents, is made up of Spanish-speaking communities.
“I see a lot of problems,” Carla Claure said.
She lives in the county and says the resources for her and other Spanish-speaking neighbors need to improve.
Claure’s husband had to go to court for a minor traffic violation, but because they were both temporarily out of work, they could not afford outside counsel or other legal advice. She said her husband was nervous and missed his day in court. Later, he was arrested and detained for a day.
“If that problem is made more big for my family in that moment, it [becomes] really, really hard,” she said.
She’s a big proponent of the center, hopeful it will help others get the help they need to be prepared before they go to court.
Several county judges attended the kick-off and believe this can be a big help. They described how often a person seems unprepared, or confused or both when representing themselves in court.
“The resource center will allow them to access information, resources and referrals to the county as well,” said Judge Dipti Pidikiti-Smith. “Having these resources will provide information to people about what they should bring, what they should say in court and how they should prepare so that the court has this information.”
Judge Susan Stoney added that people are often “very nervous when they come into court,” saying “just the process of coming into court is a trauma event.”
Lusk said the center is the first of its kind in Virginia, and it is a partnership with a number of different lawfirms, government offices and the Fairfax Bar Association.