The new self help desk in the Keakealani Courthouse in Kealakekua isn’t a full center like some courthouses have, but it will give West Hawaii residents access to assistance when serving as their own attorney in some Family and District Court cases, Judiciary officials said Monday.
“Our judiciary system exists to provide equal justice to all,” Hawaii Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald told members of the West Hawaii Bar Association during a dedication ceremony in the 3rd Circuit courtroom.
That justice isn’t provided equally when people who need to use the system cannot afford to pay for an attorney, Recktenwald said. The Judiciary has recorded an increase in the number of people acting as their own lawyer, he added. On Oahu, more than 60 percent of divorce cases have people acting pro se, he said.
The percentage of landlord-tenant disputes statewide that have at least one or both parties representing themselves was even higher, he added.
When people act as their own attorney, “they don’t know what forms to fill out, they don’t know what info goes on the form,” Recktenwald said.
That’s where the self help centers come in. In Kona, people representing themselves will have access to two attorneys, volunteering in the law library two hours a week, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesdays, starting Oct. 2. The attorneys will help people with District Court and Family Court civil issues, including collection issues, temporary restraining orders and divorce.
The Kona site is a desk, along a back wall of the law library. It is the sixth such help center in the state. The first opened on Kauai two years ago; one opened in Hilo last year, serving about 60 people a month. That site is so busy, officials there turn people away, Judge Ronald Ibarra, a member of the state’s Access to Justice Commission, said.
Already, nearly 40 West Hawaii attorneys have taken the training to be volunteers at the self help center, and 38 signed up for at least one two-hour shift, covering the service for the next five months.
“The end result is what counts,” Ibarra said. “That’s going to reflect the West Hawaii Bar Association’s, the state bar, Legal Aid and the Judiciary’s standing in the community. The community will remember what the lawyers and volunteers did in the community.”
West Hawaii Bar Association President Bob Borns reminded lawyers they would only need to volunteer a few hours a year to keep the desk staffed.
“It is access to justice,” he said, explaining the significance of the desk. “It is going to improve the public’s perception, not just of attorneys, but of the whole judiciary process.”
Recktenwald, after the ceremony, said Judiciary officials are still working on switching their focus for the new Kona Judiciary complex from their preferred site on Kealakehe Parkway to one on Queen Liliuokalani Trust land nearby. Judiciary officials had to consider alternatives to the preferred site because of concerns about the impact of new federal Fish and Wildlife Service rules pertaining to large swaths of North Kona land.
“When we did the environmental impact statement, we identified a number of sites,” Recktenwald said. “That gave us the ability to pivot and look at additional alternatives.”
The complex is expected to cost about $90 million and will consolidate court services now being held at three locations throughout West Hawaii.