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New Self-Help Center for Litigants Opens in Union

By Linda Wiggins
Administrative Specialist 4
Union Vicinage

Union Vicinage launched a self-help center in January to accommodate self-represented litigants.
 
The center, which is located in the Albender Building at 1143 E. Jersey St. in Elizabeth, was created to address the high volume of self-represented litigants who seek the assistance of the Office of the Ombudsman for help in navigating the sometimes complex course of litigation in the courts. 

The Union Vicinage ombudsman oversees the center and provides technical support to the volunteers who staff it. More than 3,000 self-represented litigants visited the Office of the Ombudsman for assistance last year.

The center, which is open Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., works on a “drop-in” basis.  

The center is considered a bridge between the courts and the community, thereby enhancing public access and improving customer service. 

The center has been equipped with public access computers and a coin-operated copier so self-represented litigants can make copies and file papers. The center also has a video center so self-represented litigants can watch videos about court and court processes. 
Although volunteers are unable to provide legal advice because court staff, including volunteers, must be neutral and impartial, the volunteers can help guide court users through the system with as much ease as possible.

Volunteers assist court users with completing and filing forms in court actions such as for divorce, requests for changes in custody and child support, name changes, judgments and expungements.

Volunteers must complete a training program before they can work in the center. A volunteer manual was created to aid in the training, which is conducted by the ombudsman or other qualified staff members.

This concept for the center was inspired and spearheaded by Minority Concerns staff member vicinage EEO/AA Office and Acting Ombudsman Leslie Santora, who learned that self-help centers have been created in several states, including California and Minnesota. 

The vicinage is seeking to establish an internship program with local colleges that would allow students to earn course or community service credit for volunteering in the center. The students would be mentored by seasoned volunteers.

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