Internet brings legal help closer

Posted: Sunday, May 09, 2004

When people who can't afford lawyers need help with family law cases such as divorce, dissolution and child custody, they now can go to computer work stations in six Alaska courthouses for legal forms, instructions and information.

The work stations, put in place by the Alaska Court System Family Law Self-Help Center, provide unlimited Internet access, have a phone set up to speed dial the family law help line in Anchorage. They also include an instruction manual for navigating through the labyrinth of available legal information.

The service is free.

The Family Law Self-Help Center first started with a telephone help line, according to Director Katherine Alteneder, who was inspecting the system at the Kenai Courthouse on Wednesday.

"The help line was tremendously popular and became over-subscribed," she said.

"We listened to our callers and, even though many were below the poverty line, nearly 85 percent had Internet access."

She said that although many of the callers did not have computers of their own, they had access through libraries and schools.

The family law center decided to create a computer Web site to answer questions and provide legal forms for family cases, and, with the help of grant money from Legal Services Inc. in Washington, D.C., put computer work stations in Kenai, Ketchikan, Kodiak, Juneau, Fairbanks and Palmer.

The work stations are designed to help people without lawyers understand family law procedures, increase access to the courts and facilitate quicker resolution of family cases.

The family law center is prohibited from giving legal advice but does provide information on civil cases including divorce, dissolution, child support, custody and visitation and paternity.

In Kenai, the work station is in the public area of the court clerk's office. It is one of two computers just to the left as people enter the office.

The family law work station is the taller, black computer. The shorter, beige one is used for looking up court case numbers and hearing dates.

Simple instructions taped to the work table get visitors started on their search for family law information.

Once into the system, users are directed to the Family Law Self-Help Center Web site. The site offers lists of types of cases, names of needed legal forms and links to other Web sites for obtaining information on such topics as mediation, domestic-violence shelters and child-support enforcement.

If people encounter difficulty with their search for information, or with the computer, they can get assistance from clerks at the counter or by speed dialing the help center on the dedicated phone next to the computer.

Those using the system are expected to have basic computer skills, according to Alteneder.

The system is designed to help people start a case, respond to a case, proceed with an existing case or seek to modify a final order.

People can print up to 20 pages of forms or information on an adjacent printer at no cost.

Alteneder said the family law center also is starting to put self-help presentations on its Web site providing general information on divorce procedures, hearings and preparing for trial.

"In Anchorage, we offer two-hour classes on the various topics," she said.

"Putting the presentations on the Web site allows us to get the information out to other areas of the state."

She also said Kenai Peninsula residents are welcome to come to Anchorage to attend the classes if they wish.

People using the work station may bring computer floppy disks on which they can download their work for later reference or for continuing to fill out forms from home.

In addition to inspecting the work station, while in Kenai, Alteneder was providing training to court clerks so they will be able to help visitors navigate through the family law center's Web site.

"People have been using the work station in Kenai and the court clerks report that they are very pleased with it," Alteneder said.

The computer is available during courthouse hours, which are from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Family law help continues to remain available to those needing it by calling toll free (866) 279-0851.

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