Supreme Court's Committee to Increase Access to the Court (Access Committee) began planning the Court Assistance Office Project (CAO) in 1998 following concern in the increased numbers of pro se litigants (people representing themselves in court) involved in civil matters. This trend was especially noticeable in family law cases. All counties in Idaho have been experiencing a uniformly high rate of self-representation in these types of cases in recent years, some reporting as many as 80-90% of the litigants being pro se. This phenomenon has slowed the judicial process, and led to growing dissatisfaction with the court system on the part of the litigants, and mounting frustration on the part of all parties involved, litigants and court personnel alike.
|1997||Access to the Courts committee form and assessments|
|1998||Court Assistance Office concept considered and recommended.|
|1999||Six-month CAOs pilot projects begun to evaluate most effective models.|
|2000||The Justice Management Institute of Denver evaluated CAO project and reported on its effectiveness.|
|2001-2004||Standard Forms Committee appointed to create simplified, pro-se statewide forms.|
|2005||With the success of the forms, Court partners with Idaho Legal Aid to develop interactive forms.|
|2006||First of the interactive forms launched for public use.|
The Access Committee commissioned a survey of Idaho self-represented litigants, which found that a majority felt the court system should provide instruction to self-represented litigants, either at the courthouse or at the public library. The Committee conceived of the CAO as a clearinghouse for an array of consumer information and referral for legal assistance for those seeking access to the courts, particularly in domestic relations cases. It patterned the offices on the recommendations made in the American Judicature Society's "Meeting the Challenges of Pro Se Litigants: A Report and Guidebook for Judges and Court Managers" (1998).
Pilot Project & Funding
The Access Committee obtained funding from the State Justice Institute to conduct a six-month pilot project to establish court assistance offices in three pilot counties. The pilot project was to run from July through December 1999. The purpose of the pilot was to test a variety of staffing models, and to develop the array of services necessary to provide effective assistance to self-represented litigants. Law professor and former magistrate judge Pat Costello was hired to direct the CAOP. Requests for proposals to establish Court Assistance Offices were sent to all 44 counties in the state of Idaho in January 1999. The Access Committee reviewed the proposals and chose Bannock, Latah and Valley counties as the sites for the first pilot offices. Outside funding was obtained to add two additional offices, one in Gooding County, and a regional office that would serve six counties in the Seventh Judicial District. Thus, service began in ten counties on July 1, 1999.
The offices are all located in the county courthouses in their respective county seats. Attorneys, court clerks, an interpreter, and a paralegal were hired to operate the offices. A "Training Curriculum and Reference Guidebook on Public Service for Court Assistance Officers" was developed, which contained office specifications, materials inventory, pamphlet index, intake forms, a "Guide to Providing Service to the Public", eligibility criteria for various legal services programs, internet links, instructions for court forms, and other information. An informational pamphlet describing the services offered at the Court Assistance Offices was prepared and several thousand were disseminated.
Project Priorities & Attorney Referrals
The first priority of the CAOP is to connect pro se litigants with attorneys where possible, and to provide informational resources to assist them in representing themselves where attorney representation is unavailable or not desired. In order to supply the services for which the offices were established, an attorney survey was mailed to all licensed attorneys in or near the counties in which the offices are located. The survey requested a wide range of information designed to assist litigants in acquiring representation. Based on the results of this survey, attorney rosters were prepared and made available to visitors to the office
Evaluation & Progression of the Project
The Justice Management Institute of Denver, Colorado evaluated the CAOP, in January 2000, following the end of the pilot project period. The final evaluation report, "Helping Self-Represented Litigants in Idaho: An Evaluation Report on the Idaho Court Assistance Office Project" was published in July, 2000.The results of this evaluation indicate that the CAOP has been very successful in delivering the services for which it was designed. In their first six months of operation, the offices serviced 664 first-time and repeat visitors. In a follow-up customer satisfaction survey sent by JMI to many of the office users, 98% reported that they found the service to be helpful and that they would use the CAOP again. 93% of the users reported that their use of the service increased their satisfaction with the court process.
The CAOP was selected by the American Judicature Society as one of the projects to be showcased at the National Conference on Pro Se Litigation, held in Scottsdale, Arizona in November, 1999. The National Association of IOLTA (Interest on Lawyer's Trust Accounts) Programs selected the CAOP as one of six innovative pilot projects to be featured in its report, "Replication and Innovation in Legal Services", published in July, 2000.
The Access Committee concluded that court assistance offices were an effective and efficient way to provide assistance to self-represented litigants. It further concluded that a regional approach with at least one court assistance officer in each judicial district was optimum for Idaho's diverse geography and dispersed population. Operation of the existing offices has been continued and the host counties have begun to participate in their funding. Two more offices were opened on July 1, 2000, in Canyon and Twin Falls counties. Additional offices will open in Ada County, Nez Perce County, and the First Judicial District later this year. As a result, every judicial district in the state will have one or two Court Assistance Offices. Over time, the Committee expects the court assistance officers in each district to extend services into all of the outlying counties of the state.
The 2001 Idaho Legislature enacted Section 32-1402(5), I.C. which established court assistance officers by law as part of a system of coordinated family services in Idaho courts. The legislature also appropriated funds to support the court assistance offices in each of the seven judicial districts.
Statewide Court Assistance Manager
Idaho Supreme Court
451 W. State Street
Boise ID 83720