Center offers legal self-help

Phone, Internet services provide information on divorce, custody, family law

Posted: Friday, April 16, 2004

More Alaskans heading to court on family-related matters have the chance to understand what's going on through the Family Law Self Help Center, said staff attorney Stacey Marz.

Even people who lose their court cases have said they like the information provided by the Anchorage-based center, which is run by the Alaska Court System, Marz said while visiting Juneau on Thursday.

"We don't replace lawyers," she said.

The center, at no charge, explains laws and legal information. People can print forms from its Web site (www.state.ak.us/courts/selfhelp.htm) and they can talk to the three staff members on the toll-free help line.

The center's telephone service has been operating for a little more than two years. The Web site, linked to the state court system site, has been in operation for about a year.

"So many communities in Alaska have no services," Marz said.

But Alaskans seem to do a good job of connecting to the Internet, she noted. Even people without their own connections can access the center through computer terminals in courthouses in Juneau, Ketchikan, Fairbanks, Kenai, Kodiak and Palmer.

In Juneau, the Family Law Self-Help Center station is outside the court clerk's front desk on the ground floor of the Dimond Courthouse.

The Web site provides information about divorce, dissolution, custody, paternity and child support. It provides referral information about adoption, name changes, emancipation, grandparents' rights, legal separation and powers of attorney and guardianship.

Marz said the center has taken 4,000 calls during the last year while getting 30,000 hits on its Web site.

The information and resources can be an "empowering" thing to people who don't understand what is going on, she said.

"In the vast majority of (domestic) cases, at least one person doesn't have a lawyer," Marz said.

In about 75 percent of contested divorces, at least one of the parties doesn't have an attorney, she said. In uncontested marriage dissolutions, at least one of the parties is without legal representation 90 percent of the time.

Marz said many come into the system not knowing the difference between a divorce and a dissolution. Dissolutions are easier, she said, because the parties agree on everything at the start - including property and custody and visitation of the children.

She said she talked to a woman from Ketchikan who was happy to say she had bested a lawyer in her contested case, although it had frustrated her for five years before she got help from the center.

"I don't know what took her five years," Marz said.

Why someone might not have an attorney varies from case to case, Marz said. Some might not be able to afford an attorney or have access to one. Some people may want to represent themselves, thinking they have a stronger interest in the case than someone they hire.

"It's their life," she said.

People can visit the Web site from all over the world, she added. That's especially important to people involved in domestic cases serving in the military outside Alaska.

The word seems to be out around Alaska that the service is available, she said. Staff collects demographic information from callers and finds their distribution around the state is similar to that of family-related court cases.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.



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