Access to Justice center hailed as legal aid game-changer


Four out of five local residents who at some point in their lives wind up in family or small claims court, either as plaintiffs or defendants, go to court without the aid of a lawyer, according to Clerk of Court Ryan Butler.

To assist these self-represented litigants – regardless of their income level – the Jeffrey R. Smith Access to Justice Self Help Center officially opened last week on the first floor of the Indian River County Courthouse.

The program, named for Smith, the former long-time Clerk of the Court who retired earlier this year, enables people to access legal forms at the self-help center, where staff can help them navigate the process, or via its website. Attorney consultations are also available in certain circumstances, at a very minimal cost.

An additional kiosk is located in the United Against Poverty UP Center and others are being planned at locations around the county.

“We have been working to bring a self-help center to the 19th Circuit for 23 years. Today is a dream come true,” said Judge Cynthia Cox.

Now, she said, local residents can complete their paperwork and have it reviewed for accuracy before being referred to a case manager to set up a hearing.

“We have so many people to thank,” said Cox. “Jeff [Smith] and I had been working for years, talking about all the needs of the court and how we could collaborate, but we were never able to do it without the help of everyone else.”

“This project is a true collaboration of public and private resources. It would not be possible without many of the people in this room and their support,” said Meredith Egan, CEO of United Way of Indian River County, which serves as the program’s fiscal agent.

Initial funding was provided by the United Way, the John’s Island Community Service League and the John’s Island Foundation. Additionally, the Board of County Commissioners agreed in May to redirect the mandated legal aid funds that it had previously paid to the Fort Pierce based Florida Rural Legal Services, and to provide space at the courthouse.

“All of those entities were needed to make it happen and to continue its success. United Way couldn’t have done this on its own. And the Clerk of the Court couldn’t have done this without the support of philanthropy and the connections to the other community organizations,” Egan added.

“The services that are offered by the self-help center will really provide a more efficient and equitable system of justice for those who need it most. And of course, it also helps people navigate what can really be a very complex legal system. It’s going to streamline the issues, we hope, for judges, as well as result in a faster resolution of cases,” said Butler.

The County Courthouse site is open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and the United Against Poverty UP Center site is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday. The website is

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