By Clerk of Court John Domurad
One of the most rewarding and sometimes most challenging aspects of being a member of the Clerk’s Office is addressing concerns from our pro se filers. Many pro se litigants make their way to federal court because all other avenues for relief have proven unsuccessful. Unfortunately, in many cases their impression of federal court is shaped by modern television where access to a judge is immediate and disputes are resolved before the show ends. With alarming frequency, individuals will come to our offices with papers in hand expecting to see a judicial officer that day.
I am always amazed at how well our intake teams address these concerns. They recognize how difficult it is to navigate federal practice without the benefit of a formal legal education. Equally important, they understand that, to the individual before them, the matter being advanced is critically important and probably the most pressing concern of their lives. While my co-workers are incredibly adept at providing guidance on federal procedures, by statute, Clerk’s Office employees are prohibited from providing legal advice. In the past, when the questions entered the legal advice arena, we were left with no recourse other than to advise the litigant to seek legal counsel.
However, approximately 10 years ago, the NDNY Federal Court Bar Association established the Pro Se Assistance Program. This Program is designed to help pro se litigants better understand the complexities involved in the prosecution or defense of a legal action, and to assist the Northern District of New York in the administration of justice. By all measures, the Program has proven incredibly successful at assisting pro se litigants with their issues and refining what can be expected should they elect to file in federal court. In 2019 alone, the Program fielded 440 inquiries and served 170 pro se litigants.
A special thanks goes out to NDNY FCBA Executive Director Shelly Ann Childers, who serves as the first point of contact, and Benjamin Hill, Esq., and Robert Wells, Esq., who work individually with the litigants addressing their legal matters. Simply stated, without their dedication and professionalism, this Program would not survive. Information on the Pro Se Assistance Program can be found on the Court’s website at https://www.nynd.uscourts.gov/pro-se-assistance-program.