Painless proceedings

Navigating through the maze of the judicial system can be frustrating and scary. Now there's help.

gavel 88.298 (photo credit: )
gavel 88.298
(photo credit: )
A new project intends to make the judicial administrative process more accessible and more user-friendly. The pilot program, known as Amit, is sponsored by the Courts Administration and the Jerusalem Municipality and brings volunteer clerks into four locations throughout the city to aid those who wish or need to interact with the courts. "What Amit is trying to do is part of the 'Access to Justice Revolution,' to come closer to those who need the help of the court," said Yuval Elbashan, director of the Clinical Legal Education Center for Human Rights and Social Responsibility at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The program helps to change the 'Rolls Royce' legal system - one that is expensive and inaccessible to most - to the bicycle model, "which is cheap, and anyone with a little help can use it," he said. Through Amit, trained volunteers are on hand in four locations around the city to provide free guidance on procedural questions for those who wish to make a claim or have been contacted by the courts. They provide residents with necessary forms for a wide range of situations, explain how to fill them out, direct the residents to the appropriate courts and departments in the city and explain what documents they need to present before a court appointment. "We are bringing the (Courts') Secretariat to the neighborhood," said Yoni Botbol, chief clerk of the Jerusalem Magistrates' Courts who initiated the project. "Anything one needs from the court can be obtained from his neighborhood.... It's a big support." Residents who need or wish to interact with the courts often have to wait in long lines, are confused as to where they should go and are often required to bring additional documents and forms before they appear before a judge. This can take up to a week or two, causing residents to lose valuable work time and pay for additional transportation costs. While the volunteers are not lawyers or advocates and do not give legal advice, they act as clerks who can help residents prepare their necessary documents involving a court order, claim or other issue. Amit volunteers come from a variety of professions and backgrounds. They are recruited by municipality employees, selected by court officials and trained by managers of court departments to provide procedural guidance on a variety of issues, including civil and criminal matters, family, labor, issues of enforcement of law (hoatza'a l'poal), small claims, and traffic. The training course lasts for two months and is intended to prepare the volunteers for possible scenarios. Upon completion of the course, volunteers receive a certificate and a photo ID. The program has already trained nearly 120 volunteers, and between 60 and 70 of them are actively volunteering at one of the program sites, Nevo said. Amit means colleague or friend, a name that reflects the intention of the program, said Ya'acov Nevo, the manager's assistant to the Youth and Social Activities Department of the Jerusalem Municipality. "We want people not to be afraid of the courts, to see that as something friendly," Nevo said. Volunteers are also given cell phone numbers of department directors at the courts and are encouraged to call whenever they have a question or are in doubt. Following recent requests from volunteers, the directors have decided to provide additional training at every community center, approximately once a month. The Amit program targets those who have no legal representation as well as those who face economic, cultural or language barriers, including new immigrants, Haredi Jews and Jerusalem Arabs, program officials say. So far, more than 110 residents have taken advantage of the program, Nevo said, with the largest percentage of those served coming from east Jerusalem. The municipality is working to better publicize the new program through media advertisements and community outreach. Residents can and do seek help on a range of issues, including family matters such as alimony payments and temporary and permanent guardianship. Some of the clients come because they have had problems with employers who have not paid them or because they are in severe debt and are trying to avoid seizure or detention. Others have turned to Amit over issues of National Insurance payments. For all these issues, Amit provides the residents with a list of procedural options that allows them to begin to handle stressful situations in a relaxed setting. "A person who needs this service feels very comfortable when he sits near his neighbor, someone like him, who speaks like him, talks like him," said Penina Elkis, manager of the community relations department of the Directorate of Courts. At a community center in Neveh Ya'acov earlier this week, volunteer Tami Yona helped a new immigrant who had questions about divorcing his non-Jewish wife and had run into problems with debts. Yona said she told him which courts to turn to and explained his options, including the possibility of public legal aid. Whatever route the person decides to take is supported, she said. In other recent cases, Yona said she explained to a resident how to submit a letter of defense in a civil suit. Another resident had been fired from his job without compensation and wanted to know how to file a legal claim against his employer. "One of the surprises that I had was how much a person can do alone without hiring a lawyer," she said. "It was great to see how simple it was." Yona, who helps manage her family's spice business, said she decided to volunteer with Amit when she saw that it was a serious program with serious sponsors. "At the end of the course, they told us, 'we are with you, whatever you need, in order to do this seriously, to do it well, whatever you need, we will always be in contact with you,'" she noted. Widad Otman, a staff member at the Peley Center in east Jerusalem and an Amit coordinator, said there is a tremendous need for this project in that area. "There are many people who come because they don't speak Hebrew," she said. "They can't do anything because of the language, so we are here to help them fill out forms." Volunteer Aref Ibrahim Abu Hamed, a teacher at the Peley Center, said he enjoys pointing people in the right direction. "There are a lot of people who lose a lot of time because they don't know where to go, to which court. We save them time," he said. If the project is successful, it could expand from four community centers to all 25 in Jerusalem. A steering committee made up of court officials, municipality officials and community members meets regularly to evaluate the program's progress. The Amit project will be considered successful if the service is utilized by enough community members and if it demonstrates that volunteers are professional in the service they offer and respond to the public with sound guidance, Botbol said. However, the program does not have full-time supervision to make sure volunteers are, in fact, providing sound information. "To check this, I would need to sit next to (the volunteers) all the time," Botbol said. "We visit, we see, we check. They also write a report about what took place" after each visit, he said. Others argue, however, that any help clients need - including procedural help - should be given only by lawyers and not by clerks such as those in Amit. It is not sufficient to simply fill out forms; legal questions and relevant facts should also be checked, said Joseph Toussia-Cohen, chairman of the Jerusalem Bar Association. "They [the clients] can lose the case because they didn't fill out certain facts," he said. "They can lose everything ... because they didn't receive legal aid." The State and the Jerusalem Bar Association offer free legal aid to those in need, and this is a better option, Toussia-Cohen added. "But only those from a very low income bracket qualify for state legal aid," said Shlomo Lecker, a human rights lawyer. "It's better to get some advice [from the Amit Program] than go without any preparation to court." Amit, which began operating in Jerusalem in mid-September, is active in four community centers in Katamonim, Baka, Neveh Ya'acov and in east Jerusalem at different shifts during the week. It is open to all residents of the city. The program, which is similar to programs in England and the United States, applies to those dealing with the Jerusalem Magistrates' Courts, as well as the District Court and the Regional and National Labor Courts in Jerusalem. While volunteer university students have been providing the same service at the Magistrates' Courts for a few years now, this is the first time that volunteers have been taken outside the courts and planted in the community. Residents can still go to the courts to prepare for a court appointment, but the large workload often prevents clerks from spending adequate time with residents, Botbol said. Those who can afford to hire lawyers have all their procedural matters taken care of along with legal representation, he noted. "We allow people who don't have the ability to hire a lawyer to receive equal service at any place that they turn to at (one of) the community centers," he said. "The Secretariat has a throng of work, a throng of assignments... and if he also wants to talk with him, he doesn't have a lot of time to give," he added. In Neveh Ya'acov, Amit volunteers are available on Sundays and Mondays from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. and Wednesdays from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. In the Katamonim, they are available on Sundays and Tuesdays from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., in Baka on Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., and at the Peley Center in east Jerusalem on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. For more information, call 583-4473 in Neveh Ya'acov, 673-7974 in Katamonim, 673-4237 in Baka, or 627-1142 at the Peley Center in east Jerusalem.