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Videos available to help self-represented litigants

July 9, 2020

The Mississippi Access to Justice Commission recently released a series of videos designed to help people who want to represent themselves in civil court proceedings without the assistance of a lawyer.

The Access to Justice Commission partnered with the University of Mississippi School of Law to produce seven videos that deal with self-representation in family law issues heard in Chancery Court. The Access to Justice Commission also partnered with the Mississippi Center for Justice to provide six videos related to eviction and other landlord-tenant issues.

The videos are available on the Access to Justice Commission’s website at http://www.msatjc.org/self-help-videos. Most of the videos are three to five minutes in length. Some include written instructions.

Chancellor Jacqueline Mask of Tupelo, co-chair of the Access to Justice Commission, said. “These videos are a valuable tool for self-represented litigants. By watching these demonstrations of court procedures and practices, they are more empowered and better equipped to represent themselves. These are an excellent supplement to the free civil legal clinics that are offered in our District and around the state.”

Nicole McLaughlin of Tupelo, executive director of the Mississippi Access to Justice Commission and director of the Mississippi Bar Access to Justice Initiative, said “The videos are intended to provide instructions and helpful tips for individuals who represent themselves in court or for people who want to learn more about what happens at court.”

The videos are not legal advice. They are intended to assist self-represented litigants, known as pro se litigants, to gain access to the courts and navigate legal complexities of the judicial system.

McLaughlin said, “It’s always recommended that if you can come up with the funds, hire an attorney.” The self-help videos are “a resource just to fill in those blanks where people can’t come up with the money to hire an attorney and they have to make that difficult decision to represent themselves.”

“There are not enough pro bono or Legal Aid attorneys in the state for everyone to use one. Some people are going to be forced to represent themselves,” McLaughlin said. All litigants, with or without an attorney, must follow court rules. For those self-represented litigants, “we wanted to put them on a level playing field,” McLaughlin said.

Family Law videos include:

• Representing Yourself: How to file a lawsuit;
• Steps to Schedule Your Day in Court;
• What is a Subpoena: Getting documents and witnesses to court;
• How to Dress for Court;
• Your Day in Court: What to expect;
• Testimony: Telling your side of the story;
• This is Not TV: What court is really like.

Eviction videos include:

• COVID-19 Eviction Issues;
• Facing Eviction for Breach of Lease;
• Facing Eviction for Nonpayment of Rent;
• Security Deposits;
• The Fair Housing Act;
• Repairs by Tenants: When the Landlord fails to make repairs.

Providing information to educate self-represented litigants also may assist the courts. Judges cannot assist those litigants, even when they struggle. The videos are intended to help self-represented litigants with issues such as how to file a lawsuit and get their legal matter before the court, what to expect when they appear in court and how to present their evidence.

Chancellor Margaret Alfonso of Gulfport said one of the biggest hurdles she sees for self-represented litigants is how to properly notify a defendant to appear for court. “The greatest difficulty (for some self-represented litigants) is knowing how to serve someone with process,” she said. “Half of the battle is getting the other side into court with proper service of process.”

Simply telling the other side to show up in court on a particular date isn’t sufficient. The plaintiff must arrange for the defendant to be served with a copy of the complaint and a court summons. It’s called service of process, and it’s one of the many topics covered in the videos.

“It’s heartbreaking to see people who have a real legal need, who cannot afford a lawyer and cannot adequately navigate the system,” Judge Alfonso said. She has seen an increase in self-represented litigants in her courtroom. “Anything to help these people effectively represent themselves is helpful to the family and to the court. Any guidance helps.”

Creation of the family law focused videos has been in the works for a year and a half. David Calder, associate clinical professor and director of the Child Advocacy Clinic at University of Mississippi School of Law and attorney Christi McCoy of North Mississippi Rural Legal Services wrote scripts with the assistance of law students and attorneys of the Family Law Section of the Mississippi Bar. Tupelo attorney Jonathan Martin narrated the videos. A volunteer cast included Lee County Court Judge Staci Bevill, Law School Assistant Director of Career Services Karen Peairs, Calder, McCoy and McLaughlin. Oxford videographer Rex Harsin filmed the family law segments on Feb. 1 in a Moot Court courtroom at the Law School.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the decision was made to add video segments dealing with COVID-19 eviction issues and other eviction and housing topics. McLaughlin said, “We identified that eviction assistance would be extremely helpful in the upcoming months and wanted to create an easy-to-access resource to help Mississippians statewide.” Attorneys with the Mississippi Center for Justice wrote scripts for the six segments. Martin narrated the eviction videos, and Harsin edited them.

For more information, contact Nicole McLaughlin at 601-960-9581 or nmclaughlin@msbar.org.

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