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Fairfax County Courthouse nears launch of Virginia’s first self-help resource center

The Fairfax County Courthouse (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

The Fairfax County Courthouse will soon lend a helping hand to visitors intimidated by the prospect of navigating the legal system on their own.

The county’s new Self Help Resource Center will officially open at 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 5 with a kick-off event in the courthouse law library (4110 Chain Bridge Road, Room 115), the Fairfax Bar Association recently announced.

Supported by $96,000 in county funds, the center will offer free legal assistance and resources to anyone who has to deal with the court, particularly those who are representing themselves either by choice or because they’re unable to hire a lawyer.

“Access to justice for self-represented litigants is a significant issue facing the legal community today,” the Fairfax Bar Association said in a press release. “…Barriers faced by self-represented litigants include cultural and language barriers, procedural hurdles, and general difficulty navigating the court process and understanding legal terminology, from what forms to file, to where and when to appear, and what to say in court.”

The association says it began exploring the possibility of opening a self-help center after the Virginia Access to Justice Commission approved the creation of a pilot program on Dec. 9, 2021.

Created by the Virginia Supreme Court in 2013, the commission found in a 2019 report that the volume of cases where a litigant is representing themselves is high and may be increasing, reflecting general economic challenges and increased online media access.

Surveys of judges and clerks indicated that individuals representing themselves appear to often be low-income and have limited education, according to the report. Judges stated that people generally opted for that approach “because they cannot afford to hire an attorney and cannot obtain representation from legal aid.”

Among other ways to make the court system more transparent and accessible, such as the launch of a self-help website, the report recommended initiating self-help centers staffed by pro bono attorneys or qualified non-attorneys who can provide information about the legal process and court policies and procedures.

Fairfax County’s Self Help Center will be the first one to open in Virginia, according to the office of Franconia District Supervisor Rodney Lusk, who was a top advocate for the facility as chair of the Board of Supervisors’ public safety committee.

Here’s more on the new center from the bar association:

The Fairfax Bar Association in partnership with the Fairfax County Courts, Fairfax Law Library, Legal Services of Northern Virginia, Office of the Fairfax Public Defender, Office of the Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, particularly the Office of Supervisor Rodney L. Lusk, the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office, and law firms in Fairfax County collaborated in the creation of a self- help resource center located in the Law Library in the Fairfax County Courthouse Complex.

The Center will be open to the public and available for all individuals who are interacting with the judicial system as litigants, prospective litigants, witnesses, or who simply have business with the court. The Center will serve the large number of self-represented individuals, and would assist them in navigating the court process, providing legal information and forms to allow them to represent themselves in a meaningful way. The Center will serve as an alternative option for those who are unable to afford legal services and for whom pro bono help is not available. The types of assistance provided include the provision of legal information, referrals, forms, and resource materials on topics related to various court matters.

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