SC Supreme Court News: Revisions to the Self-Represented Litigant Simple Divorce Packet

Earlier today the Supreme Court of South Carolina issued an Order with Revisions to the Self-Represented Litigant Simple Divorce Packet based upon suggestions from the legal community to the SC Access to Justice Commission.

Changes include:

  1. Addition of a sample script for the Plaintiff;
  2. Paragraphs 1 and 2 have been added to Page 1 so the parties can provide the county and state of their residency;
  3. Paragraph 3 of Page 1 has been added so the parties can provide the county and state where they last shared a residence;
  4. Paragraph 4 has been revised to allow the Plaintiff to select the length of time the parties have lived in South Carolina; and
  5. The statement “If no name change is requested, please leave blank” is added at the end of Paragraph B on page 3.
The instructions for completing the Simple Divorce Packet have been revised to reflect these changes.

-RFW

Congratulations to Texas Access to Justice Foundation!

In one of my e-alerts I saw where the Texas Access to Justice Foundation funded a YouTube video to help low-income self-represented litigants navigate the court system. I viewed the video and was duly impressed. While some of the information will vary for self-represented litigants in South Carolina, the video does provide good general information about what to expect in court.

Here’s the video:

Congratulations Texas!

-RFW

Guest Blogger: Daniel Kim

Recently, I have been given the opportunity to work at the SC Access to Justice Commission (SCATJ) by being appointed as a “BFF,” a bar foundation fellow. The program is known as the South Carolina Bar Foundation Public Interest Fellows Project, which was started to increase student awareness of public interest law. It also offers public legal service organizations the help they need to accomplish the work they do for the public. Now you may wonder what SCATJ is and what the organization does; I know I did. But one of the great things about this program is that it gives students a chance to learn about public interest organizations that they did not know existed.

SCATJ is faced with the difficult challenge of “ensuring access to justice for all South Carolinians.” This organization was created to help people with low income and modest means obtain access to the South Carolina court system. One of their programs is geared towards self-represented litigants, and that is the field I have done the most amount of work. One of my major projects since starting here has been to work on an information guide for different counties within the judicial district of the new Newberry County Self-Help Center. Often times, self-represented litigants forego hiring an attorney due to lack of financial means. However, these litigants often go into court with no resources or knowledge of the SC legal and court system. They do not understand the legalese in forms, the process to properly fill out court documents and forms, and court policies and procedures, such as service of process.

SCATJ tries to provide self-represented litigants with guidelines and resources so that they may enter the court with more knowledge of the system. Chief Justice Toal has spearheaded the movement to streamline polices and procedures and have records be automated through the use of the Internet. This has enabled all courts in different SC counties to have similar paperwork.

The reason I came to law school was to help those in need and make an impact in the community. As cliché as that may sound, my passion and desire to achieve this goal is the reason I applied to be a “BFF” and the reason I want to become an attorney. The goals of SCATJ align with the goals I seek to accomplish after law school, and this is the sole reason I wanted to take part in this opportunity. This has been an invaluable learning experience for me thus far. I have learned a lot about public interest law, SC law, and the challenges everyday South Carolinians face to acquire what we, as law students, sometimes take for granted: obtaining justice. It has been a pleasure to work here at the SCATJ, and I look forward to continuing to work here in order to give back more to the community while continuing to learn and grow from this experience.

-Daniel Kim

Tennessee introduces Justice for All

I watched this stunning video produced by the Tennessee Supreme Court and not only was I impressed with its quality and its simplicity, but also with its universality.

Unfortunately, the statistics used within the video match the statistics here in South Carolina.

But the message is strong. And it’s needed.

Watch for yourself!

-RFW

It’s official – Poster and FAQs online – en español

Good News!  ¡Buenas noticias!

The South Carolina Courts’ Self-Help Page now offers FAQs (General Questions, Circuit Court and Family Court) and an explanation about what court staff can and cannot in Spanish!

And many thanks to student volunteers with the USC School of Law’s Pro Bono Program and the kind folks at HABLA!

-RFW

South Carolina Magistrates Court: Take 1, Scene 1

Below is a video I made based on the recent FAQs for Magistrates Court published on the South Carolina Judicial Department’s Self-Help Resources page.

Please take a look and let me know what you think.

  • Is this a valuable way to promote the FAQs?
  • Is this easily understandable?
  • Any other comments?

Thanks.

-RFW

ANNOUNCEMENT OF LOWCOUNTRY LEGAL AID, INC. AWARD WINNERS TO BE HONORED AT 4th ANNUAL CELEBRATION OF JUSTICE

I’m very pleased to share the following announcement from LowCountry Legal Aid, Inc.:

LowCountry Legal Aid, Inc. (“LCLA”) would like to announce the winners of its annual service awards.  LCLA is proud to announce that Sue Berkowitz, Esquire has won the Clifford R. Oviatt Legal Award for the Advancement of Social Justice, which honors a lawyer who supports social justice issues through legal representation, volunteer community service, financial support and the promotion of social justice ideas in daily life.  Sue Berkowitz is an attorney and director of South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, based in Columbia.  South Carolina Appleseed fights for low income South Carolinians to overcome social, economic and legal injustice.

Ms. Berkowitz has been a consistent voice working on behalf of low-income South Carolinians for over 20 years.  She has focused her practice in the areas of health, welfare, hunger and consumer issues. She has worked on the passage of numerous pieces of legislation, including the Small Loan Act of 1995, the Family Independence Act of 1995, the High Cost and Consumer Home Loan Act of 2003, the eligibility increase for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (2007), SC Identity Theft Act (2008), Payday Lending Act (2009) and Unemployment Modernization (2010).  Berkowitz works with a number of state agencies on policy issues that impact the low income community, including changes to consumer and mortgage lending laws, the Family Independence Program, Medicaid, Unemployment Insurance, and Food Stamp rules. She has authored defenses to a foreclosure chapter for a manual produced by the South Carolina Bar as well as numerous manuals for SC Appleseed. She was awarded the Order of Palmetto, the SC Commission on Women’s Woman of Achievement Award, USC School of Law Order of the Coif and the NAACP President’s Award for her work on predatory lending and poverty issues. Berkowitz is a fervent watchdog on consumer, health and hunger issues.

Past winners of the Oviatt Award include attorneys Dick Oviatt, posthumously, William L. Bethea, Jr. and W. Brantley Harvey, Jr.

Mr. David W. Ames has won the Marilyn Stein Bellet Award for the Advancement of Social Justice, which honors a person who supports social justice through volunteer community service, financial support and the promotion of social justice ideas in daily life.  Mr. Ames, a Hilton Head Island resident since 1973, is a planner and developer who consulted in both public and private sector community planning throughout the Southeast, Mexico and the Caribbean. The size, scale and complexity of the projects have varied from small, single use projects to major resort developments, as well as town, county and regional plans. He currently serves as chairman of The Children’s Center Board of Trustees and is chairman emeritus of Hope Haven of the Lowcountry.  Mr. Ames has served on several boards and community service projects in the past, including the board of South Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities, the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry, Beaufort County Aviation Board, Hilton Head College Center, Leadership Hilton Head, Sea Pines Academy, Hilton Head Island Chamber of CommerceLeadership South Carolina, South Carolina Nature Conservancy, Community Development Corporation, and the Mayor’s Task Force on the island’s future.

Past winners of the Bellet Award include Marilyn Stein Bellet, posthumously, Thomas C. Barnwell, Jr., and Jerold H. Rosenblum, posthumously.

Barbara Swift has won the William T. Althoff Award for Outstanding Volunteer of the Year.  Ms. Swift has served on the LCLA Board for some time with enthusiasm and hard work, and has furthered the LCLA goal of providing free advice, education and legal representation to low income families in Beaufort, Jasper and Hampton Counties.

Swift, a Hilton Head Island resident since 1996, currently serves as president of Wellesley in South Carolina and Coastal Georgia, secretary/treasurer of Nadeshiko Kai, New York and co-president of the League of Women Voters of Hilton Head Island, an organization which she served in various capacities on and off for 15 years.  In past years, Barbara has volunteered for numerous local organizations, including the World Affairs Council of Hilton Head, Al-Anon, Boys and Girls Club, Habitat for Humanity, Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra, Junior League, Planned Parenthood and United Way of the Lowcountry. She recently came off the board of LowCountry Legal Aid after nine years of dedicated service.

Past winners of the Althoff Award include William T. Althoff, posthumously, Kenneth R. Nagle, and Edward “Ted” Noakes.

The award recipents will be honored at LowCountry Legal Aid’s 4th Annual Celebration of Justice January 22, 2011 at Belfair Plantation Country Club in Bluffton, South Carolina. The evening will include innovative food, live jazz music by Lavon Stevens, a fundraising silent and live auction and an awards presentation to honor the above individuals.  Silent auction items include golf foursomes, a wine tasting for 10 from Corks, a week at Eagle Lake Lodge, and more.  Silent auction items are still being accepted and tickets, which are $100, are still available by contacting the Legal Aid office at 815-1570 or lcla@hargray.com.  LowCountry Legal Aid is a nonprofit organization that provides legal representation and assistance to low income families in the lowcountry.

Guest Blogger: Jeff Yungman

The ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty recently met in Charleston to discuss issues surrounding homelessness and veterans. The following is a brief description about the meeting written by one of the panelists, Jeff Yungman of Charleston.

Stepping Up Justice for Veterans as They Stand Down:  Innovative Approaches Courts and Lawyers are Advancing to Help Veterans

The ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty presented a program at the Charleston School of LawPaul Freese moderated the program that included presentations by Paul, Jeff Yungman, Antonia Fasanelli, Sara Sommarstrom, and Steve Binder.  As the title indicates, the program focused on legal issues confronting veterans.

Jeff opened the program by explaining why veterans legal issues was the topic chosen to present and current initiatives in Charleston to develop a Veterans Treatment Court and a Veterans Child Support Clinic.  Antonia described pro bono opportunities for working with veterans and the ABA’s role in expanding legal services for veterans.  Sara provided information about the veterans’ child support clinic in Minnesota that uses law students and pro bono attorneys to provide legal services.  Steve then spoke about the homeless courts, their purpose, and how they operate.  Paul ended the program by describing veterans’ treatment courts, the reasons behind the establishment of such courts, and how they function.

The program was attended primarily by law students, but attorneys from SC Legal Services, the Solicitor’s office, and the Charleston bar also attended as well as at least one Charleston Municipal Court judge.  The reaction to the program at the time, and in subsequent comments since then, have been very positive.

Focus on Pro Bono: Douglas J. Rosinski

I haven’t met Douglas J. Rosinski in person, but I’m already impressed.

Really, just Google him. When I was looking for Pro Bono providers to interview, I contacted several people around the state; one of whom was Pamela D. Robinson, the USC School of Law Pro Bono Director. I figured if anyone knew who to contact, it was Pam. Sure enough, she referred me to Doug among others.

So, I popped him an email asking whether he’d be interested (or at least amenable) to an interview to post on the blog in honor of Celebrate Pro Bono Week. He promptly responded with his schedule and we had a tele-interview. Doug is very busy and while our interview was “interrupted” by his firm responsibilities, we somehow managed to complete the following:

Q:        Please tell me a little about how you became involved in Pro Bono service?

A:        When I attended law school (1994-1997), I was an older student and part of my reason for going to law school was to shift into a career where I could give back in some way, such as Pro Bono work. Before law school, I served as a Navy submarine nuclear engineer and commercial nuclear consultant, worked on robotics development for NASA, and as a consultant for the Department of Energy.  I thought that my life experience in problems solving would provide a basis for helping those seeking assistance with their problems; helping them make decisions. Most of law is making decisions and they’re easier to resolve with a little life experience.

Q:        What pro bono experience have you been providing?

A:        Well, after law school, I practiced as a solo for a short time in Georgia. Then I moved to D.C. where I worked in nuclear licensing. I still had a desire for community service, but somehow the usual pro bono clients didn’t seem to satisfy my interest. Then I came across a pro bono project providing service to veterans – the Veterans Pro Bono Consortium. They provide free attorneys to veterans and their qualifying family members who have an appeal pending at the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (Court).

So I took a case; which ended up being a precedent-setting case. Before this case, if a veteran died before his appeal for VA benefits was resolved, the VA kept the money. It turns out the placement of a single comma in the VA regulation was different than in the controlling statute: it made all the difference in the case and for thousands of other survivors of veterans who died waiting on appeal.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t uncommon for veterans to die while waiting for the decision. And, $50,000 or $250,000 doesn’t mean as much to a dying 65-year-old veteran: it would have meant a whole lot when the veteran was 45 years old. There are a million VA claims backlogged some for years and even decades.  There are only a few hundred lawyers to help. This type of work has a direct impact on homelessness, poverty, and health care for veterans and their families. Most of these veterans are surviving on the low-end of the financial spectrum. It’s bizarre. It’s unfair. It generates a lot passion. I figure I can fight this fight with my legal tools and professional experience.

Oh, and these aren’t quick or easy cases. It’s a 3-tier system: Administrative decision first – typically pro se; Board of Veterans Appeals, which can be very lengthy and also pro se or a non-lawyer representative; and finally appealed to the Court of Veteran Appeals, which is a relatively new court.  The Court, however, has formal rules and deadlines unknown in the informal VA system. This third tier can be especially hard for veterans trying to work through the system on their own if only because Federal Circuit and Veterans Court precedent applies, not VA rules.  This 3rd tier is where the Pro Bono Consortium enters and matches eligible appellants with pro bono lawyers.

Besides knowing that you are helping very deserving clients another great reason to do this type of work is quick appellate level experience. You can take one of these cases, and in just a few months, you’re briefing and perhaps arguing it in front of a panel of federal judges, perhaps even in front of the United States Supreme Court! These cases have national reach and national implications.

AND YOU CANNOT BEAT THESE CLIENTS! They are deserving and appreciate the work you do for them, even when the outcome is not as hoped.

Nationally there are approximately 1,000 attorneys who do this type of work. And only about 100 or so of them who are regularly taking these cases. Right now there are roughly 25,000,000 veterans and over 1 million claims filed each year.

I look for cases when the veteran simply cannot afford an attorney yet has a meritorious claim and a legal issue that could effect many other cases. Believe me, there are a lot of veterans proceeding on their own. And it’s complicated. For me, I prefer the more complicated cases. They’re more challenging.

My first client? He was a World War II veteran. The VA error had occurred 47 years earlier. He had received 2 bullet wounds in WWII, but the VA was only compensating him for one. He fought for his rightful benefits. In 2002, he finally received a letter approving his benefits.  Shortly after he received the notice, he had a fatal heart attack.  His wife survived, but the VA refused to pay her the benefits because the veteran had died after the decision to pay, but before the check was actually issued.  We got that practice ruled illegal and the widow got her money.  After that case, it was estimated that approximately $3 million per year went to widows in the same situation.

Another client? He was a volunteer in 1943, one of Merrill’s Marauders aka The 5307 Composite Unit (Provisional). He suffered a back injury moving a cannon. It took until 2002 to get the decision to award him his benefits. He received a phone call about the decision to award him benefits, then a few hours later, he died. And we continued to fight it. His wife, the widow? Living in a dirt-floor shack in Tennessee. She got her money too.

These are not atypical examples. Military service can have such a huge adverse impact on these veterans’ lives.  Attorneys can have a similar, but positive, impact when the VA fails to treat these people’s claims correctly.

I really had no idea that this pro bono service would lead me to such amazing and professionally rewarding experiences.

-RFW

Focus on Pro Bono: Elliott Tait

Elliott Tait is currently a 2L, taking Wills, Trusts and Estates, Constitutional Law II, Problems in Professional Responsibility, Transnational Law, and Poverty Law at the University of South Carolina School of Law. He is also a member of the Pro Bono Board and the Moot Court Bar.

When asked about his favorite class, Eliott replied “I really enjoy Poverty Law, taught by Professor Patterson.  It’s a class that analyzes the major policies relating to the poor, and it has certainly opened my eyes to the good things that government has been able to facilitate as well as the many things they could improve upon.”

While at the law school, he has checked in from time to time with Pamela DeFanti Robinson, the school’s Pro Bono Program Director. Through this program, he has been able to volunteer in a number of ways, with a memorable volunteer experience teaching a few CHOICES classes at the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).  The curriculum is meant to give the kids in DJJ practical and accessible knowledge of the law.  In particular, Elliott references the day he taught a lesson on law enforcement.  At the beginning of the class the kids were very cynical and even hostile toward anything surrounding the idea of police officers.  By the end of the class, however, a few of the kids were able to really put themselves in the shoes of police officers and begin to understand the reasons behind their conduct.  The simple acknowledgment that “maybe cops aren’t as bad as I think” was a huge victory.

Currently, he is providing Pro Bono assistance by working with the South Carolina Access to Justice Commission’s Self-Represented Litigant Committee under the supervision of Stephanie Nye, Counsel to the Chief Justice. This Committee is working to implement the state’s first self-help centers, which will provide resources to self-represented litigants.  Specifically Elliott is helping to draft and edit self-help centers’ guidelines. Additionally he is also drafting a resource list which contains relevant contact information and links to resources that for self-represented litigants.

When asked whether this particular Pro Bono experience has given him any surprises, he noted “I have been surprised at the level of opposition to self-help centers in some counties.  I understand some feelings of caution about the idea, but outright opposition is surprising.”

He continued “I have learned about the real value in providing services to self-represented litigants.  It’s a shame that South Carolina is many years behind other states in providing such services.”

Elliott also noted that his pro bono experience working with the SC Access to Justice Commission “has simply reaffirmed that the practice of law is a great way to serve others, as there is great need.”

As to his future?

“At this stage I see myself going into some form of public service.”

And what would he tell other law students about his experience?

“Pro Bono work has always been interesting, unique, challenging, and rewarding.  It has really enriched my law school experience, and I plan to make it a significant part of my professional career.”

-RFW