Free Help for People in Family Court
Clinic offers legal help for free to the needy
Lawyers volunteer their services to low-income people
By Brian Rogers
James Nielsen / Houston Chronicle
Mert Irdayog left, gets legal help from attorney Kelton Miller center, during a twice-weekly legal clinic in which lawyers volunteer their services to help low-income people.
Marissa Iniguez needed just a little bit of help.
The single mother of three had used the wrong forms while trying to file her divorce, a small procedural error that knotted up the legal proceedings when she finally appeared in front of a judge in September.
After several visits to court, then to the county’s law library, she learned about a program for low-income residents recently created by the Houston Volunteer Lawyers, the nonprofit service arm of the Houston Bar Association.
With a little guidance from a lawyer working with the free program, she was able to navigate the system and finalize the divorce she initiated in May.
“It was a hectic mess until I met Stephanie,” Iniguez said of her pro bono, or free, attorney, Stephanie Sommerlatte. “I was about to give up and wait until next year.”
The twice-weekly legal clinic is a partnership with the Harris County Law Library, South Texas College of Law Houston and Houston law firms. It expands services to those who do not qualify for legal aid but still cannot afford an attorney.
Sommerlatte, a staff attorney who generally supervises volunteer lawyers for the program, said Iniguez just needed guidance.
“She was very frustrated, and we were able to straighten it out,” she said. “She was able to get her divorce that day.”
Sommerlatte said the program is part of a host of resources for people who want to represent themselves.
“We’re there to guide them,” she said. “But they need to know that not every case is easy to do by themselves, but at least we will be able to point them in the right direction if they need to hire an attorney or seek legal aid.”
The clinic works in conjunction with a long-established Courthouse Information Booth on the 17th floor of the Civil Courthouse to help the growing number of people who need help. It also gives volunteer attorneys experience in family law that they might not otherwise have.
“A lot of times, they teach me because of all the research they’ve done,” said Kelton Miller, who was licensed in November and works at the tall-building law firm Baker Botts. “These people are motivated to get stuff done by themselves, and I can at least help walk them through it.”
Located in the basement of the Harris County Law Library, the new clinic has the added benefit of free computer access, legal research materials and help from the law library staff for low-income people who contact it.
‘It was worth it’
That means people like Iniguez, who works a full-time job and had to take time off each time she tried to appear downtown in court, can get through basic legal procedures as fast as possible.
“Being on my own, it was a difficult process,” the 25-year-old said. “That organization really helped me.”
She said she would encourage others with small problems in family court to visit the clinic.
“Don’t be afraid to ask questions. They’ll guide you. That’s what they’re there for,” she said. “It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.” email@example.com twitter.com/brianjrogers