Sept. 16 - Catholic University clinic students who participate in the Small Claims Resource Center Project were coached by attorneys from Neighborhood Legal Services on how to meet client needs. Professor Faith Mullen, (standing in white, center) supervises the students' effort.
Small Claims are no Small Matter to Catholic University Clinical Legal Students
If someone’s car is destroyed by a falling tree—as has been known to happen during violent D.C. thunderstorms— filing for damages can be a confusing process, especially for the self-represented. What kind of evidence does the court need to assess the claim? Are photos from the scene necessary?
These kinds of relatively minor legal issues are the bread-and-butter of the Small Claims Resource Center Project, developed in conjunction with the DC Superior Court and the DC Bar in the fall of 2006. Catholic University’s legal clinic has been partner in the program since the beginning, supplementing the staffing of the project by attorneys from Neighborhood Legal Services with clinic law students, who run the Resource Center each Thursday morning for 16 weeks per year.
Working under the supervision of Catholic University law professor Faith Mullen, clinic students counsel self-represented litigants about how to present their cases in court. This can involve help with pleadings, or referrals to legal service providers.
Typically the students assist up to19 self-represented parties per week. Client needs can vary. One man, who was being sued a second time for the same issue (where he had paid the claim in full) needed assistance preparing a motion to dismiss the complaint against him. In another case, a woman who had not been paid for day labor was advised that it was a better idea to bring her case in a Maryland court rather than in the District of Columbia.
As with many other clinical initiatives, the tradeoff is a win-win: students obtain real life experience, and clients benefit from competent and free legal help.
“Students leave the court realizing they know more law and procedure than they thought they did—they see that they know how to read and apply a court rule, locate a statute, draft a pleading, or help someone obtain continuance,” observes Professor Mullen. “For some students, this is the first real test of their skills as an attorney and it is a test they pass with flying colors.”
Students are enthused about the opportunity to put their legal knowledge in service of the public.
“I can honestly say that this experience is as close as a lawyer may ever get to working in an emergency room,” commented one past participant in the project. “In a few short hours, I was exposed to what seemed like every time of procedural problem there is.”
Said another, “These [clients] seemed to be at a serious loss as to what to do and how to do it. With some, I saw frustration melt away as a next step or process was explained to them. Not only did they learn about the law and the process, but I also learned about the law, the process, and dealing with people.”
Catholic University’s Small Claims Resource Center Project students are also working on a handbook of most common cases and issues.