Legal Aid is a nonprofit organization that provides free legal services to people who have low income and face fundamental problems related to family, health, housing, money and work. We maximize our limited resources by providing a variety of levels of service to eligible clients, including legal advice, hep with forms and legal documents, as well as full legal representation. Unfortunately, we still cannot help everyone in need of legal assistance and too many people have to navigate the system on their own.
In most cases related to civil problems involving family, health, housing, money, work and others, people do not have a right to an attorney. The familiar words – “You have a right to an attorney and if you cannot afford an attorney one will be appointed for you” – only apply in criminal cases when a person could go to jail, or in some other limited situations where a “fundamental right” is at stake, such as termination of parental rights. As a result, many people have to go to court and solve legal problems on their own.
The following resources provide helpful information about accessing Legal Aid services, about navigating the system without help from a lawyer, and about other helpful resources.
Taking Your Case to Small Claims Court
Do you have a claim for $6,000 or less? You can bring a lawsuit without an attorney in a small claims court. Claims can include such things as unpaid wages, security deposits, breaches of contract, defective products, damages in minor auto accidents, or damages to your personal property. This brochure provides information on where and how to file, as well as tips on how to prepare yourself to convince a judge or magistrate that you should get the money you are claiming and how to present yourself in court.
More information is available in this brochure published by Legal Aid: Taking Your Case to Small Claims Court
This brochure is also available in Spanish at: Cómo presentar su demanda ante el tribunal para casos de menor cuantía.
I plan to represent myself in court. What should I know?
Every person has the right to represent themselves in court. A “pro se litigant” is a person who is involved in litigation but not represented by an attorney. Instead, the person represents themselves, also sometimes referred to as a “self-represented litigant.”
Court staff can help a pro se litigant understand how to do things. For example, court staff may answer questions about how the court works or explain what different words mean. The staff may also give you information from your case file and provide you with court forms and sample documents. Court staff cannot tell a pro se litigant what to do. Court staff cannot provide legal advice or research, or tell you what to request from the judge or court. See more information about preparing to represent yourself in court here.
Some courts offer help to pro se litigants. For example, the Information Center at the Cuyahoga County Domestic Relations Court has computers for completing court forms and staff will provide general information about court procedures and forms. The Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court has a Pro Se Center that provides blank forms and reviews completed forms. Cleveland Housing Court has Specialists that will assist pro se litigants with information on housing issues and will provide sample forms, general assistance and other resources.
There are many online resources for pro se litigants. For example, the Cleveland Law Library website has a large page on resources for pro se litigants. See more information here. In addition, the American Bar Association lists pro se resources by state and includes helpful articles, reports, court rules and other links. See more information here. See a list of resources here.
When filing a case in court, you may be able to complete a poverty affidavit, which waives prepayment of fees usually charged to file documents with the clerk of court. The poverty affidavit must show that you cannot afford the filing fees. For more information and sample forms, click here.
If you have to represent yourself in court, remember that pro se litigants must follow the same rules and laws as attorneys. The judge can provide some limited help, however. For example, you have the right to ask for clarification if you don’t understand something. If you are asked a question you don’t understand, you should say so. Just like attorneys, you must always tell the truth in court.
On-Line Resources for Pro Se Litigants
In the United States, people do not have a right to court appointed attorneys in civil cases when facing problems such as divorce, foreclosure, or eviction. People have no right to a free attorney for disputes with agencies about benefits, such as Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, Ohio Department of Medicaid, Social Security Administration or the Department of Veteran Affairs. In these situations, people who cannot afford to hire an attorney often must represent themselves in court or before an administrative law judge. The following resources can be helpful when preparing to represent yourself, or going to court “pro se,” as it is called when you do not have an attorney.
Cleveland Law Library
1 West Lakeside Avenue, FL4
Cleveland, OH 44113
(216) 861- 5070
Yale University’s Docket Research Guide (Information on how court docket’s can be searched)
This article was written by Vanessa Hemminger and appeared in The Alert: Volume 31, Issue 2. Click here to read a full PDF of this issue!
What is mediation?
Mediation is a way for people to solve a legal problem without going to trial. Mediation usually occurs after a court case is filed. But, it can also happen before a court case begins.
At mediation, the parties have an opportunity to tell their side of the story. The mediator helps reach an agreement that is acceptable to both parties. A settlement agreement states what each party will do in order to resolve their dispute.
Both parties must attend the mediation. Parties do not need a lawyer to go to mediation. If an agreement is reached, the terms are put in writing and both parties sign it. The parties are required to follow the agreement. When a court case is already filed, if any party violates the settlement agreement, the other party may request a hearing from the court.
When preparing for mediation, parties should collect and bring to the mediation any papers related to their dispute. What each party says during mediation is confidential and cannot be used in court against each other. However, the mediator may be required to report issues of child abuse, elder abuse and the admission of a crime.
If the parties cannot reach an agreement at mediation, the case can be filed in court or if already filed, it will be sent back to the court for a trial where a judge or jury decides the outcome.
The Cleveland Housing Court offers mediation for the benefit of both landlords and tenants. Most commonly in eviction cases, the parties agree on a date for the tenant to voluntarily move out. Landlords benefit by knowing a tenant will move and tenants avoid having an eviction judgment. To schedule mediation at Cleveland Housing Court, contact the mediation coordinator at 216-664-4926 or see a Housing Court Specialist on the 13th floor of the Justice Center.
Mediation can also be an option to resolve disagreements about child custody. See Legal Aid’s brochure, Custody Mediation: What You Should Know In Advance, available at http://lasclev.org/custodymediationbrochure/.
Mediation is available to help resolve other types of problems through the Cleveland Mediation Center. See http://clevelandmediation.org/programs/community-disputes/ for more information.
This article was written by Legal Aid Senior Attorney Abigail Staudt & Staff Attorney Hazel Remesch and appeared in The Alert: Volume 30, Issue 2. Click here to read a full PDF of this issue!
When do I have the right to an attorney?
Most people end up in court because they have to go, not because they want to be there; either they are being charged with a crime or they cannot resolve a dispute. When going to court, the assistance of a good lawyer makes a big difference. Unfortunately, many people cannot afford to hire a lawyer. In certain types of cases, you have the right to ask the court to “appoint” or assign a lawyer to represent you who you do not have to pay.
In criminal cases, you have a right to a lawyer whenever you might receive any amount of jail or prison time. This generally means you have a right to a lawyer in every felony case and most misdemeanor cases, including traffic offenses, with the exception of minor misdemeanors. You will not usually have a lawyer appointed until the first time you appear before the judge; but, you do not have to speak to police without a lawyer present. You also generally have a right to a lawyer on your first appeal or at a hearing where you may be sent to jail for violating your probation or parole.
JUVENILE COURT CASES
Both parents and children have the right to lawyers in juvenile court proceedings. When a child is charged with committing a crime, he or she has a right to a lawyer. When Children and Family Services removes or attempts to take custody of children, the parents have the right to a lawyer and the children may also have a right to their own lawyer (in addition to a guardian ad litem).
CHILD SUPPORT CASES
A parent who may go to jail for failing to pay child support has a right to counsel at the “show cause” or “contempt” hearing. A parent is not, however, entitled to a lawyer when determining the amount of the child support payments.
OTHER CIVIL CASES
In a few other circumstances—generally where your liberty is at stake, you also have a right to a lawyer. If you are the subject of a guardianship, a civil commitment, or certain immigration proceedings (such as removal or asylum), you likely have a right to appointed counsel.
In most other civil cases, such as evictions or if you are sued by a creditor, you do not have a right to a court appointed lawyer. You can hire a lawyer to represent you, or apply for free legal assistance through the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, which may be able to help in some cases. Call 1-888-817-3777 to apply for assistance.
This article was written by Cuyahoga County Public Defender Cullen Sweeney and appeared in The Alert: Volume 30, Issue 2. Click here to read a full PDF of this issue!
What are some tips for preparing for a housing case on my own?
What is Housing Court? In Ohio, three courts have divisions that specialize in housing-related issues: Cleveland, Toledo, and Franklin County. These courts were created to allow judges to develop expertise in these areas of law and use a problem-solving approach to cases. In other cities, the municipal court typically hears cases related to housing issues.
What types of cases are heard in Housing Court? The courts hear civil and criminal cases related to real property. The civil cases include landlord tenant matters, like evictions, rent deposits, and actions to compel repairs. The criminal cases involve the failure to maintain property, and include building, housing, health, fire and zoning code violations.
What should you know about going to Housing Court on your own?
You are not required to have an attorney to appear in Housing Court (unless you are appearing on behalf of a company you own). If you are in Court on a criminal case you may be entitled to a court-appointed attorney. Ask the Judge about your right to counsel when you appear for a criminal case.
- Read your court papers carefully! They will tell you when and where you are to appear, and whether you need to file anything in writing with the Court.
- Look at the Court’s website. Most websites post basic information, including local rules, and have a list of “frequently asked questions.”
- Read the rules. A court’s local rules tell you how individual courts handle cases. Also, all parties must follow the Ohio Rules of Civil Procedure, whether they are represented by an attorney or not.
- Evictions are summary proceedings. This means that cases move quickly, and usually are heard and decided at the first hearing. In Cleveland, if you are ordered to move, you may have as few as seven days to do so! If you have special circumstances you would like the Court to consider, bring related paperwork to the hearing.
- Consider mediation. The Cleveland Housing Court now offers community mediation, in which court staff meet with landlords and tenants in their neighborhoods to try and resolve problems and avoid future lawsuits. For more information, please contact the Court at 216-664-4295. In other communities, check with the municipal court to find out if mediation is available.
- Questions? Many organizations offer help to tenants. Call 2-1-1 for resources in your community. In Cleveland, see a Housing Specialist for information about court procedure and landlord-tenant law, Monday through Friday, from 8:00AM – 3:30PM, on the 13th floor of the Justice Center. The Specialists are not attorneys, and cannot represent you, but can answer general questions.
This article was written by Cleveland Housing Court Senior Staff Attorney Jessica M. Weymouth and appeared in The Alert: Volume 30, Issue 2. Click here to read a full PDF of this issue!
What are some common legal terms I should know?
Answer: A document filed by the defendant with the court responding to the plaintiff’s complaint.
Civil Action: A lawsuit filed with a court to demand a legal solution to a private dispute.
Complaint: The first document filed by the plaintiff in a case. It describes what the plaintiff claims the defendant did wrong that caused the plaintiff some harm.
Court Docket: An official court record of what has happened in a legal case. The docket is a public record and can often be viewed online from the court’s website.
Default Judgment: A judgment granted by the court for failure to file a pleading by a specific deadline or a failure to appear in court when required.
Defendant: The person being sued in the lawsuit and who the plaintiff claims did something wrong.
Magistrate: A court official appointed by a judge with authority to administer and enforce the law in a case.
Motion: A written request asking the court to take some form of action (for example, to dismiss a complaint).
Plaintiff: The person or company who files the lawsuit with the court.
Pleadings: Written documents filed by the plaintiff or defendant that give information to the court about the dispute.
Poverty Affidavit: A written, sworn statement that you have a low income and do not have enough money to pay court filing fees.
Pro Se: A person who does not have an attorney representing them in their case and who appears in court by himself or herself.
Summons: A court order requiring a person to appear or respond in writing to the complaint. Failure to appear in a civil case can result in a default judgment; failure to appear in a criminal case can result in being arrested.
 http://www.acba.org/Public/For-Media/Legal-definitions.asp at page 1.
 http://www.acba.org/Public/For-Media/Legal-definitions.asp at page 3.
 http://www.acba.org/Public/For-Media/Legal-definitions.asp at page 7.
 http://www.acba.org/Public/For-Media/Legal-definitions.asp at page 18.
 “Pro Se.” West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. 2008. The Gale Group 22 Jul. 2014 http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Pro+Se
This article was written by Legal Aid Paralegal Kristen Simpson and appeared in The Alert: Volume 30, Issue 2. Click here to read a full PDF of this issue!
How does the U.S. legal system work?
The American legal system is based on federal laws, which cover the entire country, and state laws, which only cover a particular state. Federal and state systems handle both civil and criminal cases. Federal courts handle civil issues like bankruptcy, while state courts handle civil issues like evictions and divorce.
A civil case typically starts when one person, the plaintiff, claims that another person, the defendant, harmed the plaintiff by doing something against the law or by not doing something they were legally required to do. Criminal cases begin when a person is accused of a crime, or “indicted.” Unlike in civil cases, the government brings criminal cases through the county prosecutor’s office. The victim is not a party to the case.
There are many kinds of state courts, including municipal courts and common pleas courts, where cases usually start. Municipal courts hear less serious criminal cases and civil claims for less than $15,000. Common Pleas courts primarily hear felonies and civil cases worth more than $15,000. If a party loses at trial, she can take her case to the Court of Appeals. The loser on appeal can ask the Ohio Supreme Court to hear the case. All courts can only hear cases within their jurisdiction, which is generally the geographic area where the court is located (e.g. Cleveland Municipal Court hears cases that occur in Cleveland.)
The Clerk of Courts is the person who keeps the records for the court. The Clerk receives documents for filing and collects court fees. People who have to go to court and cannot afford to pay filing fees can often file a “poverty affidavit.” A “poverty affidavit” is a sworn statement that you have a low income and cannot afford the fees. Once you file the affidavit and a judge approves it, your filing fees will be reduced or waived in that case. See http://lasclev.org/selfhelp-povertyaffidavit/ for more information.
Some problems must be addressed through an administrative proceeding before going to court. Benefits provided by the state, such as Unemployment Compensation, food stamps, and Medicaid, are part of the administrative law system. When an agency like the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services makes a negative decision about a person’s benefits, the person must be notified and given an opportunity to request a hearing by a certain deadline. At the hearing, a person is allowed to bring an attorney or other representative to help explain why the agency’s decision was wrong. After all available administrative proceedings have been used unsuccessfully, a person can take their issue to court.
This article was written by Legal Aid Summer Associate Jacob Whiten and appeared in The Alert: Volume 30, Issue 2. Click here to read a full PDF of this issue!
I think I need to file bankruptcy, but attorneys are so expensive. Should I file on my own?
Many people are tempted to file bankruptcy without a lawyer because of the high cost of a bankruptcy attorney. The process of self filing, however, is sometimes scary, often confusing, and full of potential pitfalls. If you cannot afford to hire an attorney but think you are a candidate for bankruptcy, apply to Legal Aid or attend a free legal Brief Advice Clinic before filing on your own.
In 2005, bankruptcy law changed to make it more difficult for people to file a bankruptcy. Attorney fees increased dramatically. As a result, fewer people can afford to hire an attorney but the need for counsel in the bankruptcy process is even greater.
Changes to the law include a requirement to file specific documents, taking financial management classes, and testing your level of income to make sure you qualify for a bankruptcy. All these barriers are designed to make your bankruptcy harder and create greater risk for someone filing on their own.
The bankruptcy trustee (who administers the bankruptcy for the Court) will tell you that he or she cannot give you any legal advice if something goes wrong, and will not likely sympathize with you just because you don’t have a lawyer. If you misunderstand the rules, you could accidentally lose your house or your car. If your bankruptcy fails entirely, you may lose your filing fee and have to start again. Worst of all, (where you do not follow a Court order), you may not be able to ever discharge your debts, even if you file a new bankruptcy.
You should also be cautious about using “petition preparers.” They are not attorneys, cannot give legal advice, and likely charge too much for simply typing the forms.
Before you decide to file for bankruptcy on your own, contact Legal Aid at 1-888-817-3777 to see if you qualify for our bankruptcy assistance. You can also find out the date and location of the next free brief advice clinic for assistance.
This article was written by Legal Aid attorney Michael Attali and appeared in The Alert: Volume 29, Issue 1. Click here to read the full issue.
What happens when the police arrive?
Tell them what happened and ask for their assistance. Police must do the following if responding to the incident:
- Conduct separate interviews with the victim and the abuser
- Ask about the history of abuse
- Provide the officer’s name, badge and report numbers
- Provide the telephone number of a domestic violence shelter, a number to call for information about the case and provide information about any local victim advocate program
- Make a written report of the incident even if an arrest is not made
Be sure to ask for the officer’s name, badge and report numbers, and also request that a police report is filed.
An officer should arrest an abuser who causes serious physical harm or uses a weapon during the incident. The police may request that domestic violence or other charges be filed if an arrest is made.
I have a State Hearing to get my benefits back. What should I know?
Have your state public benefits been reduced or terminated? Changes to your benefits can happen if you missed an appointment, did not submit correct information, or did not report changes in your income. If you believe the recent change to your benefits is a mistake, you may request a state hearing. A state hearing is an opportunity for you to explain the mistake and request the full amount of benefits you should receive.
Before the Hearing
If you request a state hearing, you may continue receiving the original amount of your benefits as long as you make the request within 15 days of receiving the notice about the change. Once your request is made by phone or letter to your local agency, you will be notified when and where the hearing will take place.
You may choose a representative (lawyer, friend, or relative) to act for you with the agency, but it is not required. A representative can attend the hearing in your place as long as the person has written permission from you. You may usually review information in your case file and subpoena witnesses and documents at least five days before the hearing.
At the Hearing
The hearing is where you will meet or speak with a hearing officer who will listen to the information provided and decide if changes to your benefits are correct. A representative from the agency will present information in favor of the change and you can present information about why you believe the change is a mistake. If you cannot attend the scheduled hearing due to transportation, medical, or child care issues, you may ask to postpone or request a telephone hearing. If you miss the hearing and did not call ahead of time but you have a good reason, you must contact State Hearings within 10 days to request your hearing be continued to another date.
After the Hearing
You should receive a decision within 30 days from the date a state hearing was requested. Food assistance increases must happen within 10 days of the decision and decreases by the next time you receive assistance. All other benefit increases or decreases should happen within 15 days of the decision.
If you disagree with the decision by the hearing officer, you may request an administrative appeal. If you receive another notice of changing benefits, you must request a separate hearing for that new action. Legal Aid can help with some benefits denials and terminations. Call 1-888-817-3777 to apply for assistance.
This article was written by Brittney Brown and Claire O’Connor and appeared in The Alert: Volume 31, Issue 2. Click here to read a full PDF of this issue!
What are some tips for representing myself in a family matter?
It is always best to have an attorney help you in court, but if you find you must represent yourself, here are some suggestions. Two courts handle family law issues, Juvenile and Domestic Relations. Start by reading the court’s website. Some courts post forms and instructions. For example, the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, Domestic Relations Division, has a complete packet with instructions and forms on how to file a divorce and your divorce decree. If you visit the clerk’s office, remember that clerks are not permitted to give legal advice.
If you seek a specific outcome, start by filing a complaint or motion. The other party must receive a copy of the documents that you file with a court. This is called “service.” You can ask the clerk of courts to “serve” the other party by completing a “service instruction” form. You will need a complete address for the other party. Failure to provide an accurate address for the other party will postpone your hearing. The clerk will send you notice of the date, time, and location for your hearing. Remember to notify the scheduler of any changes to your address or phone number. Mark your calendar for deadlines and hearings in your case.
The court expects you to be ready for your hearing. Keep your papers organized with paper clips or folders. Bring to court whatever proof you have that supports your case. For example, to prove your income for child support, you should have recent paystubs, w-2s and tax returns. Include three (3) copies of all documents that you plan to present to the court: one copy for the judge, another for the other party, and the third copy for yourself. Also, have copies of any documents that were filed by you and the other side. You can refer back to these papers as necessary. Invite witnesses that can help you prove your case. The court will expect you to present testimony by asking questions during the hearing. Make sure you know what your witnesses will say when deciding who should testify.
When a case concerns children, courts will not permit your children to come into the court room, so it will be important to plan for child care ahead of time.
When it is time to present your case, stand and follow the directions of the judge or magistrate. Make sure to dress appropriately. Explain what you would like the court to do for you and your family. Most importantly, point out why this action is needed and how it will serve you or the best interest of your children.
This article was written by Legal Aid Managing Attorneys Davida Dodson and Tonya Whitsett and appeared in The Alert: Volume 30, Issue 2. Click here to read a full PDF of this issue!
What are some self-help tools I can use in my legal case?
The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland recently created a self-help section on its website to begin providing tools to people who must go to court on their own without the help of an attorney. The tools currently available can help people with the following:
- Completing a poverty affidavit to request a waiver of court filing fees
- Sealing a criminal record
- Completing health care directives (living will and health care power of attorney)
- Accessing the Cuyahoga County Child Support Portal for information about child support orders
Keep checking the Cleveland Legal Aid website for more self-help tools in the coming months. If you have questions, attend one of Legal Aid’s free brief advice clinics. You can find a list of upcoming clinic dates and locations here.
This article appeared in The Alert: Volume 30, Issue 2. Click here to read a full PDF of this issue!
I plan to represent myself in court, what are some guidelines?
Many people go to court without a lawyer, also called appearing “pro se.” It can be a scary process, but preparing for the court hearing and knowing what to expect can reduce stress and allow you to better present the facts and issues in your case. If you are representing yourself in court, the following steps will help you prepare.
1) Know where your courtroom is located. Once you receive your court date, take a trip and find your courtroom. This will help you plan travel time, parking or bus routes, plus give you an idea of the layout of the building so that you can easily find your way to court on the day of your hearing. Always make sure to leave plenty of travel time for unexpected issues. If you are not in your courtroom at the time your case is called it can be dismissed or move forward without you.
2) Present yourself as a business person at your hearing. Although you are not a lawyer, you are representing yourself and you want to look and act the part. You do not need to buy new clothing, but make sure to dress professionally. Also, make sure all devices, such as cell phones, are turned off. Court officials may take these items if they ring during a hearing. In addition, you should only bring into the courtroom people needed for your case. Others can distract you during the hearing and may cause disruption. You should address the judge as “Your Honor.” Although you may disagree with the opposing party, do not interrupt or argue with anyone in court. You will be given time to speak and present your case.
3) Prepare the evidence you will use in your case. Not all evidence is allowed to be used to support your case. At the hearing, the judge or magistrate may tell you that you cannot present certain evidence. Don’t get frustrated if you are told this and continue moving forward with your case. For any papers you plan to use as evidence, make sure to have copies for you, the opposing party and the court. The court and the opposing party will keep their copies. You should also talk with your potential witnesses to prepare them and let them know they may have to answer questions from the opposing party or attorney and the judge. Remind your witnesses to dress appropriately and turn off all devices before entering the courtroom.
Following these steps can help you feel prepared, avoid unexpected surprises the day of your hearing, and present your case clearly to the court.
This article was written by Legal Aid supervising attorneys Lauren Gilbride and Kari White and appeared in The Alert: Volume 30, Issue 2. Click here to read a full PDF of this issue!
Family Matters: How do I Name a Durable Power of Attorney?
A durable power of attorney can be one of the most helpful estate planning tools a person uses, but it can also be very risky. A durable POA gives a person (who is called an “attorney in fact”) legal authority to act for another person in a variety of matters, including banking, benefits, housing, taxes, real estate, litigation, and more. (The durable POA is different from a Health Care Power of Attorney, which is the form used to appoint a person to make decisions about health care.)
A power of attorney can be limited or very broad in scope depending on what is needed. A properly written and executed durable POA can give someone a great deal of power over another person’s affairs, and should be carefully considered. Executing a power of attorney does not take away the ability of the principal — the person signing the power of attorney — to continue to conduct his own affairs.
When deciding who to name as “attorney in fact,” consider four things about potential people:
1) Trust. The person named in a POA must be trusted to do what the principal wants and needs. The “attorney in fact” must not use his authority to take advantage of the principal and cannot exceed the authority given to him.
2) Competency. The attorney in fact must be capable of handling the tasks the principal needs done. A person who must handle a complicated tax matter needs a different level of competency than someone who needs to make sure the rent is paid each month.
3) Capacity. The needs of the principal may change over time. The attorney in fact should have the time, energy, and willingness to help the principal as different situations arise.
4) Communication. The principal and the attorney in fact should be able to communicate clearly with each other. The principal needs to give directions about what she wants done under different circumstances, and the attorney in fact should be honest about what she is willing and able to do.
Ohio’s “power of attorney” form, along with tools and resources to help fill it out, can be found here. The POA form should be signed before a notary. The POA must be given to anyone or any institutions asked to rely on it, such as a bank or landlord. The POA lasts until the principal dies or says the power of attorney is no longer in effect. The POA must be recorded with the county if used for any transactions involving real property.
Older adults and people with disabilities or serious illness may apply to Legal Aid for help creating a durable power of attorney by calling 1-888-817-3777.
This article was written by Anne Sweeney and appeared in The Alert: Volume 33, Issue 1. Click here to read a full PDF of this issue!