The Pro Bono Project is a New Orleans-based non-profit providing free civil legal services to underserved members of six South Louisiana parishes. Managed by The Pro Bono Project and staffed with volunteers — including attorneys, paralegals, and law students — the Self-Help Resource Centers (SHRCs) provide assistance to pro se plaintiffs with various family law-related matters.

Unrepresented litigants who visit the SHRC receive assistance with petitions relating to custody, divorce, and name changes, as well as a variety of other pleadings, such as answers and orders to show cause. Pro se plaintiffs who come in person can access court-approved forms, including free notarization, and are advised of next steps. While the SHRCs do not provide legal counsel, they provide information — especially to those with more complicated legal issues — about organizations providing low- or no-cost representation.

Often the issues faced by unrepresented litigants are deeply personal. Stakes are high, and the court system can be intimidating. Many come in without a clear sense of the pleading they need or procedure to follow. They have varying levels of reading comprehension or may bring mistaken assumptions about requirements and process. Helping these members of the public with basic legal literacy, The Pro Bono Project meets an often overlooked but critical need for help. Providing this information is essential to ensure equal access to justice.

Unrepresented litigants at the Orleans Parish SHRC have included:

  • A grandmother seeking custody of her grandchildren. Her son, the children’s father, had been recently incarcerated, and their mother had been absent since they were infants. This grandmother needed to obtain the legal authority to make educational and medical decisions for the children in their father’s absence. We assisted her with her petition to establish custody and determined how best to serve her son in prison.
  • A man wishing to rectify the name on his birth certificate. His last name should have contained an accent mark but was recorded without one by a hospital worker. He had wanted to make this correction for years but didn’t know where to begin. We helped him fill out his petition for name change and described the steps then needed to correct his birth certificate.
  • A father attempting to modify a custody order. He missed a hearing due to work, believing it would simply be reset, not understanding that his ex-wife’s petition for custody could be ruled on in his absence. He received no visitation. We traced the status of the original custody matter and helped him complete his petition to modify it. This grateful father returned to the SHRC weeks later to share photos of himself with his children, enjoying the visitation he had been granted as a result of his petition. This was especially rewarding for us since we seldom learn how the matters we assist with resolve.

Generally speaking, visitors to the SHRCs are unrepresented because of the prohibitive cost of legal counsel and the lack of sufficient resources among legal services organizations helping people of limited means. Assistance with paperwork and procedure is not a substitute for legal counsel but is an impactful service for pro se litigants who otherwise would be navigating these crucially important issues on their own.

Sara has been volunteering at the Orleans Parish SHRC since November 2021, and was just named The Pro Bono Project’s 2022 Paralegal of the Year. Sydney, an associate in the Labor & Employment Department, began volunteering in October 2022.