Legal documents can be hard to parse, and for rural Montanans, and it also can be hard to find help filling out those documents.
The Court Help Connect Program assists people representing themselves on civil legal issues, by connecting them virtually with folks at the State Law Library who can answer their questions while filling out tricky forms.
Alex Clark, community outreach assistant for the Montana Legal Services Association, said the goal of the program is to increase access to free civil legal assistance for rural Montanans.
“The distance from Glasgow, Montana, where there is no self-help law center, to Billings, where there is a center and where people can get free help with legal forms, is longer than the distance between New York City and Washington, D.C.,” Clark explained. “People shouldn’t have to drive four hours just to get help filling out the legal forms.”
Court Help Connect workstations are located in 11 courthouses and libraries in cities such as Dillon, Glendive and Miles City.
Clark noted access to the program dipped during the pandemic but is ramping back up as restrictions ease.
The program is a partnership between the Montana Legal Services Association, Montana Court Help Program and the Office of the Court Administrator.
Clark emphasized his organization watched people fill out legal forms to get insights into the kind of barriers they typically face. They then automated 14 legal forms, so people could complete them online by themselves for free.
He added it’s helpful for people to connect with a law expert while filling out these forms.
“These are really commonly used legal forms, but they’re also really high stakes,” Clark contended. “You know, we’re talking about time with your kids, your housing, allegations of a debt that someone may or may not owe. So often, what I’ve learned in my experience is that people really need reassurance.”
Clark stressed another reason this program is helpful is because civil legal issues are a largely overlooked part of the justice system.
“With the criminal justice system, it’s very clear that you have a legal problem,” Clark observed. “A police officer is reading your Miranda Rights off to you. The civil legal problem? It’s not always clear that there’s really a legal avenue to resolving that dispute, and then it’s also not clear where to go for help.”