Court-annexed self-help clinic

In an advisory opinion, the Ohio Board of Professional Conduct approved a court’s proposal to establish a self-help center where court-appointed lawyers would provide short-term legal assistance to persons of limited means who otherwise would be unrepresented.  Ohio Advisory Opinion 2017-7.  The lawyers would not represent the litigants before the court but would provide general legal assistance and information, explaining court procedures, addressing service of process issues, ensuring that litigants file the correct court forms, and making referrals to sources or persons for additional information or assistance.

Comment 4 to Rule 2.2 of the Ohio code of judicial conduct provides that a judge may make reasonable accommodations to ensure self-represented litigants the opportunity to have their matters fairly heard.  Ohio Advisory Opinion 2017-7 explains that a court-annexed legal services program “is a permissible method” of ensuring the right of self-represented litigants to be heard and improving access to justice.  “A self-help clinic in a court,” it states, “can facilitate the administration of justice by reducing the necessity for a judge to provide additional accommodations for a self-represented litigant during a hearing, assisting in maintaining the appearance of impartiality, and increasing the opportunity for the matter to be heard on its merits rather than dismissed on technicalities.”

However, “[b]ecause the self-help clinic inevitably will be viewed by the public as a court-provided service,” the opinion states, “it must operate and appear, to the extent possible, as an independent function of the court.”   Thus, the Board advises that the court’s oversight and involvement “should be de minimis,” primarily funding and appointment of the lawyers, “not the day-to-day operation.”  Further, the opinion suggests, the physical location of the self-help clinic should reinforce the independence of the court and appointing judges.

The opinion also directs the court to take steps “to avoid communications between the appointed lawyers and court staff and judges about case-related matters that could be interpreted as an ex parte communication or imply that judges are not impartial.”  The opinion does permit occasional meetings between judicial officers, court staff, and appointed lawyers to discuss general administrative issues related to the clinic’s operation.  The opinion notes that the court should appoint the lawyers “impartially on a merit basis, and their compensation should not exceed the fair market value for similar services.”

Finally, the Board emphasizes that a “court that establishes a self-help clinic must be aware of the ethical obligations of the appointed lawyers in the clinic.  Most importantly, a limited client-lawyer relationship is formed when a lawyer participates and assists litigants in a self-help clinic, requiring the lawyer to adhere to his or her ethical obligations under the Rules of Professional Conduct.”

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