Self Help Legal Services from Start to Finish
July 16, 2021
Using Self Help Legal Services is an efficient and economical way to initiate or respond to a family law case. There are three easy steps to get the legal help you need: 1) Schedule a free initial phone consultation; 2) Meet with attorney to prepare your paperwork for about 2 hours; 3) File your paperwork at the Courthouse.
The very first step taken with Self Help Legal Services is a free initial consultation by phone. The Florida Bar requires attorneys to keep track of who they speak with and attorneys are required to conduct a conflict check before giving any legal advice - making certain the attorney has not spoken or consulted with the opposing party. Once the conflict check is completed, the attorney is required to keep certain information about all inquiries so that future conflict checks can be completed. More importantly, once the initial consultation is done and there are no conflicts then I can give legal advice during the consultation.
Another reason for the initial consultation by phone is to provide for a pre-screening of both the attorney and the client. Like any other relationship, the attorney and client need to be able to communicate with each other and understand each other’s limitations, rights, obligations and responsibilities. I started this pre-screening process by phone when I had a rash of office consultations showing the client was in the wrong state, did not have a case, was too late and already missed a critical deadline, or did not need an attorney in the first place. The phone consultation is efficient and saves time and money.
The next step is scheduling a two hour appointment in the office, over the phone or by Zoom. One of the beautiful things about Self Help Legal Services is that we can do this long distance; the client does not have to come into the office to get help. This is a Florida State-wide service. There are 67 counties in the State of Florida and I have personally worked in 38 of them over the course of my career. There are unique rules associated with different counties and circuits throughout Florida, however, the basic forms are all uniform as the forms are approved by the Florida Supreme Court and used consistently throughout the state. Although the client does not have to be present or on the phone during the entire two hour Self Help session, the client should remain easily available to answer questions. During the appointment, I prepare the paperwork you need to file and then we go over the completed paperwork together. After a final review and any edits, the client signs the documents with a notary present. The notarized documents are ready to be filed with the court.
To wrap up the Self Help session, I write a personalized instruction letter in plain English describing the immediate steps you’ll need to take next, potential costs you’ll have to pay, upcoming deadlines, court contact information, and tips for mediation. When the session is over, the client walks away with papers in hand - prepared by an attorney - and an instruction letter to use for a reference.
It’s really that easy.
Self Help Legal Services is a gem for another reason: there is help available for any stage of the litigation process no matter if you are the petitioner or the respondent. Family cases go through different stages: 1) Initial Pleadings; 2) Responsive Pleadings; 3) Discovery/Financial Disclosure 4) Mediation; and 5) Trial or the final hearing.
The first stage of a court case includes the initial pleadings and responsive pleadings, which are heavily front-end loaded. Petitions involving children require a great many forms to be filed by both parties and most of the forms have to be notarized. If you want to file a lawsuit in family court, the clerk of court has packets the public can buy for a small fee. These packets include documents for the petitioner as well as the respondent, so you have to sort those out. There are approximately 8-12 documents that need to filed with cases involving children and all of these separate documents contain separate pages of instructions that are often many more pages long than the actual document! These packets can be very intimidating and many people get overwhelmed with the amount of paperwork involved. All of the documents, however, are fill in the blank and/or multiple choice. If you’re going it alone, I recommend reading the forms first and filling out those portions that are easy to understand. If you get stumped or are not sure what the form is asking for, referring to the instructions should clear up the confusion.
Once a law suit is filed that means somebody is going to get served and have to respond to the law suit, and there’s a deadline. Respondents are not given a packet when served and do not always know what forms need to be filed. The initial pleadings are very important, especially if the petitioner is requesting a modification of a prior court order or if the response requires a motion to dismiss rather than an answer, and finally, because there are deadlines involved. Whether you are a petitioner or respondent Self Help Legal Services can take the fear out of the forms.