When you think of life-changing legal services, do divorce proceedings come to mind? They should. Though not as obviously life-threatening as an eviction notice, domestic violence, or immigration issue, a bad marriage is a significant obstacle to attaining happiness, independence, and economic freedom. Many people who cannot afford a divorce attorney forgo an official divorce filing. This can cause complications later when a person wants to get remarried, make end-of-life preparations, or otherwise move on. Fortunately, free advice and support for these situations are available at monthly clinics run by The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland and the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association (CMBA).
In 2009, CMBA and Legal Aid jointly established a monthly pro se divorce clinic for individuals seeking assistance with legally separating from their spouse. Pro se is Latin for “on one’s own” or “on one’s own behalf”; at each clinic, volunteer attorneys empower attendees with the knowledge and resources to file for divorce on their own.
Closing the justice gap
Legal Aid does not have the level of resources it would take to help everyone who is low- or moderate-income and wants a divorce. For that reason, cases involving safety risks (for the spouse/partner and/or children) are prioritized. This inevitably leaves out hundreds of cases representing hundreds of individuals and families who have nowhere else to turn.
To address this group in an efficient and impactful way, Legal Aid created a specific questionnaire for prospective clients who call with a divorce-related inquiry. An intake specialist records if the case fits within the following criteria: there was no domestic violence; the couple has been living separately for at least one year; there are no children from the marriage; there are no major assets at stake; there is demonstrated financial need. If the case is a match, Legal Aid mails the caller information about the coming month’s free Pro Se Divorce Clinic. People are also referred to Pro Se Divorce clinics by the CMBA and the Cleveland Homeless Legal Assistance Program. Clinics typically attract 10–15 people per month and last a few hours. They begin with a presentation from the leading volunteer attorney, who then opens up the session for assistance with paperwork and questions. Clinics are held at the Cleveland Law Library, which is conveniently located in the same building as the county courthouse. Attendees can receive instruction, fill out their paperwork, and file for divorce all in one afternoon.
Pro Se Plus
Jennifer Himmelein, Esq, a partner at Cavitch, Familo & Durkin and frequent volunteer at Pro Se Divorce Clinics, started a secondary clinic in 2012 called Pro Se Plus Divorce Clinics. These run every other month and are designed to address slightly more complicated cases, such as cases involving children. Recently, these clinics were expanded to include cases where child support also still needs to be established. Pro Se Plus Divorce Clinics require participants to complete brief preliminary forms so that attorneys can familiarize themselves with the case details and assist on-site with specific, relevant recommendations.
Divorce cases are often quite lengthy, lasting many months if not years. It is therefore difficult for a volunteer attorney to commit to working on a divorce case. The Pro Se and Pro Se Plus Divorce Clinics offer attorneys a structured opportunity to give back to the community with a reasonable time commitment. Just a few hours can make an enormous impact on a person’s life and future.
“Questions about divorce are some of the most common questions we get here at Legal Aid,” says Ann Porath, a Managing Attorney at Legal Aid. “While the legal approaches may be similar enough to address in a group setting, these cases are not simple matters for those involved. Each person attending our clinic is taking an incredibly meaningful step.”
Lauren Gilbride is currently a Supervising Attorney for Legal Aid’s intake department and Volunteer Lawyers Program. She has worked with Legal Aid since 2006, first as a summer associate and clerk while at Case Western Reserve School of Law and then as an attorney since 2008. For the past 13 years, one of her focuses has been the engagement of pro bono volunteers.Gilbride works to ensure pro bono attorneys who are interested in volunteering as lawyers with Legal Aid get matched with the right projects and cases. If you’d like to volunteer, visit www.lasclev.org. Gilbride has been a CMBA member since 2009. She can be reached at (216) 861-5259 or email@example.com.