Volunteer attorneys keep busy at Self Help Center

WAILUKU – Fueled by volunteer attorneys and donations of equipment and supplies, the Self Help Center at the Wailuku courthouse has provided legal information to hundreds of people in little more than a year of operation.

Second Circuit Judge Rhonda Loo is hoping to find ways to expand the program to reach more Maui County residents representing themselves in some Family and District Court civil matters.

“It took a lot of blood, sweat and tears,” said Loo, who spearheaded the effort to open the center in October 2012 at Hoapili Hale. “I hope we can keep this going. It’s a great vision for Maui County.

“I would love, in the future, if we could expand the hours or expand the days so we can serve even more people.”

The center, in a former snack shop on the first floor of the courthouse building at 2145 Main St., is open from 9 a.m. to noon Thursdays, except for state holidays. While most Maui residents must show up to obtain information, Molokai, Lanai and Hana residents can speak to an attorney by calling 463-1360 during hours that the center is open.

Volunteer attorneys and an AmeriCorps advocate provide legal information for issues related to landlord-tenant and collection cases, District and Family Court restraining orders, divorces, custody issues and other matters.

In addition to providing court forms and reviewing court documents for interpretation or to ensure forms have been completed correctly, volunteers try to answer procedural questions.

“The average bear doesn’t know much about court,” Loo said.

But by talking to an attorney and getting information about procedures and forms, “I think it puts people at ease,” she said. “I think they’re not as scared. They feel they’re more able to handle the situations.”

Most comments are positive on survey forms filled out by people who have used the center, Loo said.

She said that when the Self Help Center isn’t open, people can go to the courthouse service center next door to get the same forms for small claims, uncontested divorces, restraining orders and other matters. The service center is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.

At the Self Help Center’s first volunteer attorney recognition luncheon Nov. 5, more than 30 Maui attorneys were recognized for volunteering 273 hours of their time at the center. Wailuku attorneys Kevin Jenkins and Kyle Coffman volunteered the most, with 24 hours each during the year that ended Oct. 13.

“It’s a great thing to be doing to give back to the community and to provide an ability for people to have improved access to the justice system,” Jenkins said.

Coffman said he didn’t realize he had volunteered that many hours. With his practice including family law, he said he is familiar with many of the issues that people have questions about.

“I enjoy working there because you meet different people,” Coffman said. “Whatever problems they have, we try to help them on their way. They’re grateful, and they’re cooperative.

“There’s a lot of need for legal help out there, but a lot of the people that have the needs can’t afford attorneys.”

Most Thursdays, people are lined up outside before the center opens.

“People show up early and wait,” said Magdalena Bajon, an AmeriCorps member who staffs the center most Thursdays through the Legal Aid Society.

Some days, 30 people or more show up for help.

“There is a huge need for legal services and legal information, even basic information,” Bajon said. “There are days we are staying after hours. We try not to send anybody away.”

If attorneys at the center can’t answer someone’s questions, Bajon will email a group of attorneys with the questions and ask the person to return the next week to get more information.

In addition to Bajon, two volunteer attorneys staff the center. The attorneys, who undergo training first, sign up to volunteer for one-and-a-half hour shifts.

The list of volunteer attorneys includes retired Judge Shackley Raffetto, who was 2nd Circuit chief judge when he assigned Loo to take on the task of opening the center.

Wailuku attorney Lynn Araki-Regan, whose practice is focused on collections and landlord-tenant cases, began volunteering in October, in part to fulfill a requirement for lawyers to do pro bono work.

“So much of my work is transactional,” she said. “It’s nice to be able to help people who aren’t represented by anyone.

“My New Year’s resolution is to increase service in 2014.”

The other volunteer attorneys are Benjamin Acob, Caroline Belsom, Eyke Brathhurdman, David Cain, Roya Deyhim, Nicole Forelli, Greg Garneau, James Giroux, Gina Gormley, Eve Green, Kirstin Hamman, Linden Joesting, Tracy Jones, Georgia McMillen, Tim McNulty, Keri Mehling, Allison Mileur, Gary Murai, Yukari Murakami, Shinken Naitoh, Judy Neustadter, David Raatz, Doug Sameshima, Danielle Sears, Davelynn Tengan, Sonya Toma, Kristina Toshikiyo and Brianne Wong Leong.

Some attorneys who haven’t been able to volunteer their time donated money or supplies, including office equipment and reams of paper, Loo said.

Attorneys Dave Jorgensen, William Kinaka, Gary Robert and David Sereno were recognized for such donations.

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at lfujimoto@mauinews.com.