MONTICELLO — Judge Dan Flannell's preference would be for all defendants in his courtroom to have attorneys helping them.
But for those who can't afford a lawyer or just want to represent themselves, he is thankful for the Piatt County Legal Self-Help Center, which went online last week.
"This is not a substitute for lawyers," Flannell said at a press conference at the Piatt County Courthouse last week.
"But this (having representation) is not a realistic option for many people. By providing legal information in a usable form, we hope that people who must come to court on their own will be better prepared and better able to tell their story to the judge," said Flannell, chief judge for the six-county Sixth Judicial Circuit.
The website, http://piatt.illinoislegalaid.org, includes information on some of the simpler civil legal problems such as foreclosures and divorce. It features articles, automated legal forms and videos designed to help the litigant navigate the court system.
"There probably isn't a day that goes by when one or more people show up in the circuit clerk's office looking for help with a court hearing," said Piatt County Circuit Clerk Charlie Barre. "Neither I nor my deputy clerks can provide much help since we are not lawyers. It will be a great help to be able to direct people to the Legal Self-Help Center so that people can get the information that they need to go to court."
For those without Internet access at home the service will be available at all seven public libraries in Piatt County. Library personnel were trained on the Legal Self-Help Center last week.
Stacie Patterson, outreach coordinator with Illinois Legal Aid Online, hopes the online legal help will also take some of the mystique out of the court system. "We've created this sort of secret society, and I hope this helps demystify the court system and gives access to people on these rules and regulations," she said.
A $1,500 state grant helped get the program off the ground locally. The underlying website has been developed and maintained by Illinois Legal Aid Online. Piatt County is the 85th county since 2007 to offer access to the service. In the Sixth Judicial Circuit, Champaign and Macon counties have been online with legal self-help since 2007. Moutrie, Douglass and DeWitt Counties should have the service by mid-September.