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Service Center to help public navigate courts

A special feature of Franklin County’s temporary courthouse will be a new Court Service Center, with roots going back 20 years to the “Reinventing Justice” project to make Franklin County’s courts more comprehensible and accessible to the public.

Beginning in March, the law library at the temporary courthouse will house one of two pilot-project service centers in the state, staffed by a full-time coordinator as well as employees rotating from various courts, to answer questions for people trying to navigate the court system or handle legal matters on their own behalf.

The center, which will have printed materials about local court programs as well as legal services and other available community services, will also be a hub for access to online resources and the Massachusetts courts website.

These should provide people with information about primarily civil actions, including probate, housing and small claims procedures, said courts spokeswoman Erika Gully-Santiago.

Franklin County and Suffolk County were selected as trial sites for the new program, which is viewed as a permanent feature of the courthouses — and built into the permanent Greenfield courthouse that’s scheduled to open in late 2016. The centers could also be expanded to other courthouses depending on how the urban and rural test sites work out.

The new center, meant to address the large number of proportion of people — particularly in probate and family court — who try to represent themselves, often facing a daunting array of forms, paperwork and multi-step procedures that may involve multiple courts or agencies, says Franklin County Register of Probate John F. Merrigan. Because court personnel are restricted from offering legal advice to people, finding a judicious balance of assistance has been a long-standing issue.

A 105-page Franklin County Futures report, completed in 1992, dubbed “Reinventing Justice,” identified a host of areas to make the courts more user-friendly and, in the process, make their operation more efficient, by diverting cases that could be handled in alternative, more appropriate settings, like the drug court or restorative justice programs.

Helping the 85 percent of Probate and Family Court clients who represent themselves complete necessary forms, Merrigan said, could save wasted hours on the part of the courts where those forms have been improperly filled out, for example.

In addition, many court actions involve low-income and socially disadvantaged people and families with multiple cases in multiple courts, so by helping self-represented litigants in civil matters, the center could help users find their way to benefits, housing, employment, mediation, consumer protection, veterans services, victim services, social services and other community resources.

The center will be overseen by a working group representing various courts, Merrigan said, pointing to a collaborative approach that also involves a variety of human service and educational resources in the community.

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