WAILUKU - Hawaii Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald called the opening of a Self Help Center at Hoapili Hale "a huge step forward for the cause of justice" during a ceremony Tuesday afternoon at the state courthouse building.
The center, located in a former snack shop on the first floor, will be open from 9 a.m. to noon Thursdays, except on state holidays, starting this week.
Volunteer attorneys will provide free legal information to help people representing themselves in district and family court civil matters, including landlord-tenant disputes, collection issues, temporary restraining orders and divorce cases.
Hawaii Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald and 2nd Circuit Court Judge Rhonda Loo cut a maile lei while officially opening the new Self Help Center at Hoapili Hale as Mayor Alan Arakawa looks on Tuesday afternoon. Beginning this week, volunteer attorneys will staff the center to help people with free legal information to help them represent themselves in civil matters, such as landlord-tenant disputes and debt collection issues.
The Maui News MATTHEW THAYER photo
Residents of Molokai, Lanai and Hana also will have access to the center by cellphone, said 2nd Circuit Judge Rhonda Loo, who helped spearhead the effort to open the Maui center. Residents from those outlying areas can call 463-1360 to speak to an attorney during hours that the center is open.
The center, which is the last of four to open statewide, is relying on donations of both supplies and attorneys' time to continue the chief justice's vision, Loo said.
Recktenwald said the idea for the centers in Hawaii was formulated two years ago to help people navigate the court system and present their cases in court.
"If people come to court and can't afford a lawyer and don't understand the system and don't know how to represent themselves, then the underlying premise of the system is undercut," Recktenwald said.
He said court self-help centers previously have opened on Kauai, the Big Island and Oahu.
"What we have done in the two years is nothing short of amazing," Recktenwald said. "We have come from having no service of this kind to having one in every county.
"We hope this will help us fulfill our mission of providing access to justice and equal justice for all."
He said court staff at the adjacent Customer Service Center will continue to help people with court forms and procedures.
Attorney Jennifer Oana, who began working on the project when she was president of the Maui County Bar Association, said about 30 attorneys have completed a half-day training to volunteer at the center.
Because the attorneys will give legal information, not legal advice, they will be able to help both parties in a case, in some instances by referring them to statutes that apply and explaining court procedures, Oana said. "We want to help them help themselves," she said.
Wailuku attorney Eve Green will be among the first volunteers staffing the center when it opens Thursday morning. "I think it's going to be a great idea," she said. "There are so many questions people have. It's one more avenue."
In court cases that may be too financially small to warrant hiring an attorney, people can go the Self Help Center for information on handling the case themselves, said attorney Eyke BrathHurdman, who has a Lahaina law practice handling family law, wills, trusts, estates and business law.
"They can do it themselves," she said. "They need information on how to fill out the forms. Sometimes the forms themselves really frighten people off."
People also sometimes don't understand the timing and steps in court cases, which the volunteer attorneys can explain, BrathHurdman said.
"Most people are deathly afraid of the judges," she said. But she said judges understand when people are representing themselves, while also requiring that they follow rules and standards.
"I think it's going to be beneficial," she said.
Retired 2nd Circuit Judge Joel August and Nicole Forelli of the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii also worked on getting the center started. It is a collaboration of the state Judiciary, Hawaii State Bar Association, Maui County Bar Association and Legal Aid Society of Hawaii.
* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at email@example.com.