Political bipartisanship was in full bloom Monday morning when Democrats and Republicans at the state and local levels joined hands to christen a Hamilton County office to help people navigate the sometimes impassable judicial system.
The county's new Help Center, which opens Tuesday at 8 a.m. on the first floor of the courthouse, went from a proposal by Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor to the creation by Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval and presiding Municipal Court Judge Brad Greenberg. An attorney, a paralegal and University of Cincinnati College of Law volunteers will provide legal guidance to people who have non-criminal matters in Municipal Court and can't afford a lawyer.
For Pureval, the county's first Democratic clerk of court since 1903, the help center represents the fulfillment of a campaign promise.
"I've always believed that our courts are the one venue where everyone should be treated equal," he said at a morning press conference. "It shouldn't be who you are, what you look like or how much money you have. We know that if you don't have money or an attorney, you are at a huge disadvantage in our courts. Oftentimes, if you don't have access to legal advice, you can't get the justice that you need."
Access to justice cut across political lines Monday. O'Connor is a Republican who championed the cause in 2015. Greenberg, too, is a Republican, as well as a former assistant county prosecutor and court clerk administrator. Also appearing were other judges from both parties and Democratic county commissioners Todd Portune and Denise Driehaus, whose agency contributed $115,000 toward the help center's budget.
O'Connor said going to court and trying to resolve legal issues without a lawyer becomes a "costly merry-go-round" for people trying to make ends meet, often resulting in lost wages, sometimes their jobs. Advances in online and mobile access to the courts, she said, doesn't make up for human assistance.
"There is no substitute for knowledge of the ways of the legal system and the dissemination of that knowledge to the citizens," she said.
"Your officeholders here, especially Aftab, have done a fabulous job," she added. "Judge Greenberg, you're to be commended as well, and the county commissioners and everyone who has pitched in to help build the center." Asked if there were help center models elsewhere in Ohio, O'Connor said, "I think this is the model."
Greenberg said he expects the help center to have an impact on the quality of justice.
"When litigants use the proper forms, follow the local rules and procedures, meet the time deadlines and then appear in court prepared for their hearing, it helps the magistrate or judge reach a proper decision," he said.
Pureval, himself an attorney, said the help center will focus on Municipal Court civil matters such as landlord-tenant disputes, small-claims disputes, collections and garnishments. Initially it will be open from 8 a.m. to noon, to be expanded later this year. Its website, not functional Monday, will be cincyhelpcenter.org.
"This is to empower our community to represent themselves," he said. "As the clerk of courts, I hear from my front-line staff every day. We have so many folks coming to me asking me how to fill out a form or where do I go. Unfortunately, my staff is handcuffed because we can't provide legal advice — and we should not and will not provide legal advice. This is a resource to fill that gap."
Blocks away from the courthouse, people sitting in the shade of Piatt Park welcomed the notion of receiving help with legal problems.
"I was evicted from community housing for a charge that I wasn't convicted of, but because I didn't appeal the eviction — I didn't know I could — I lost my apartment. I lost everything," said Peaches Smith, who lives downtown.
"It (the help center) would educate people on things they don't know," she said. "People tend to get over on people, and a lot of people just lose out. They don't have the money to pay lawyers who can back them up."
Mike Williams, a Cincinnati man who said he's homeless, agreed.
"I very much think it's something people need, because most people don't know the law," he said. "There's so much BS going on in the system that you need to get to the root of what's going on."
CONTACT JAMES McNAIR at [email protected], 513-914-2736 or @jmacnews on Twitter