[P]roviding forms is not enough. People need assistance in completing the forms, and they need information about the legal process. . . . We must continue to examine our judicial institutions carefully, thoughtfully and critically to ensure that the judicial branch operates efficiently, impartially and independently for the people of the state.
                     Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson, State of the Judiciary Address 1998

Left: Volunteer Attorney Patricia Ballman, Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson, and Attorney Ernesto Romero  

WHAT IS IT? The Wisconsin Family Justice Clinic (WFJC) is a nationally-recognized (American Bar Association) model for successful court-based legal self-help centers. The WFJC has led to filling previously unmet legal needs of  family law unrepresented litigants who cannot afford representation. Victims of domestic violence, poverty, and physical and emotional abuse have been helped by such a center. Over 9000 people have used its services.  Eighty-one lawyers and paralegals have volunteered their time since its inception.  Currently thirty-seven pro bono volunteers donate their time.

WHY HAVE A SELF-HELP CENTER? Wisconsin courts are facing an ever-increasing number of litigants who go to court without legal counsel, largely because they cannot afford representation. The unfamiliarity of these self-represented litigants with court procedures and forms, as well as with their rights, leaves them disadvantaged in court and consumes a significant amount of court resources. As such, pro se litigants present a direct challenge to our judiciary's and private bar's goal of improving access to the courts. Onsite programs like the WFJC offer one solution and serves as a model for the state's other courts.
WHERE IS IT LOCATED? The WFJC is located in G-9 of the Milwaukee County Courthouse, 901 North 9th Street, Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53233 - at the corner of 9th and 10th and Wells. It is open between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. (1st come - 1st served basis) every Monday and it may expand in the near future.  Contact Attorney Romero to find out if there are other times available.  An average of 15 people are seen on a daily basis during that one hour. The numbers are increasing, however, and on occasion, people have to be turned away due to time limitations.

WHAT TYPE OF SERVICE IS PROVIDED? One to three volunteers (some are bilingual in Spanish) are assigned Monday through Friday to offer self-represented litigants one-on-one assistance with forms and procedures and referrals to community resources. Facilitators provide legal information regarding a wide variety of family law matters, and more recently, small claims issues. Facilitators are not to provide legal advice. Attorneys, law students, and paralegals are legal forms assistants /facilitators - nothing more. They listen to a person's questions and provided the appropriate forms that comply with the local court rules and procedures to assist a person's goals - a post-judgment modification in support, custody, or visitation, etc.. No advice is given regarding complex matters. People are referred to the Wisconsin Bar Association's Lawyer Referral Program if the matter is too complex.

HOW ABOUT MALPRACTICE CLAIMS? An attorney-client relationship must exist to satisfy one of the elements of a malpractice claim. No relationship is established given the bilingual disclaimer printed on the sign-up sheet - that NO LEGAL ADVICE IS GIVEN - JUST INFORMATION. Each person is required to sign it. Each pro se person must fill out the forms themselves in their own handwriting.  In addition, there is a conspicuous sign that reads that no legal advice is provided.

WHAT BENEFITS ARE THERE WITH SUCH A CLINIC? Equal access to justice must extend to all people, including the vulnerable and poor who would be unable, without pro se assistance, to assert, protect, or defend their rights.  Continuation of this clinic is essential to ensuring access to the courts.  By not providing guidance to pro se litigants, Judges do not risk loosing their neutral status. The clerks have time to do their jobs. Lawyers contribute back to their communities. People get to know lawyers and their work. It is a much more efficient method of addressing the legal needs of the unrepresented.

WHO MADE WFJC POSSIBLE? Wisconsin's Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson challenged us with her vision of having the private bar and judiciary address the needs of the unrepresented. First Judicial District Chief Judge Michael J. Skwierawski, Clerk of Circuit Court John W. Barrett, the Hon. Michael P. Sullivan and Family Court Commissioner Michael J. Bruch authorized and assisted attorney Ernesto Romero in establishing the clinic and making it a reality. The Milwaukee Bar Association Bench Bar Committee under the leadership of Com. Dean Zemel assisted in promoting its use.