SIDNEY — Ashley Catterson, of Jackson Center, had been married since 2007, but the marriage wasn’t exactly a match made in heaven.
“It had become violent,” she told the Sidney Daily News recently. The couple had separated, but Catterson’s husband didn’t want the separation. They had been back and forth, together and apart, when Catterson began to think about seeing a divorce attorney.
“But I couldn’t afford hundreds of dollars per hour,” she said. That’s why she contacted Legal Aid of Western Ohio. And it was there that she learned about a new opportunity in Sidney: a divorce clinic for low-income residents.
“The Shelby County Common Pleas Court, in conjunction with the Shelby County Bar Association, is sponsoring a free clinic for low-income residents who are trying to file for divorce without an attorney,” said Magistrate Gary J. Carter. “The clinic is for participants who are seeking an uncontested divorce, with or without children, and they must have been separated from their spouses for at least 60 days.”
Carter established the clinic in May and plans to have them on the third Tuesday of every other month. The next one will be Sept. 15 from 1 to 4 p.m. Another is scheduled for Nov. 17.
“Legal Aid is underfunded and overworked,” Carter said. “There are two lawyers in Springfield who cover five counties, including Shelby. Because they’re stretched so thin, they can’t meet the need of low-income people.”
To help alleviate that situation, the Ohio Supreme Court has made forms available on its website, so individuals can access them inexpensively and easily.
“We’ve seen a big increase of people who try to represent themselves,” Carter said. “They found the form, got it half-filled out, scraped together enough money to get into court. But they don’t know what they’re doing and it bogs down the whole court system.”
He had heard about similar clinics in other counties and took the idea to a meeting of the Shelby County Bar Association. Attorney Heath Hagemann, of Sell, Hegemann & Zimmerman Co. L.P.A. in Sidney and chairman of the bar association’s Family Law Committee, said it made sense to get involved.
“We (local lawyers) deal with local rules of court and local practices that deal with family matters,” he said.
At clinics in May and April, eight local attorneys volunteered their time, and Melissa LaRocco, pro bono director of Legal Aid of Western Ohio, assisted.
“I went to the courthouse,” Catterson said of her experience. “They interviewed us. It was one-on-one. They put us with our own personal attorney. They went over the paperwork.”
Carter stressed that the volunteer lawyers do not represent clinic clients. They help them to properly fill out court-required forms,
including a complaint for divorce, a poverty affidavit and a waiver of filing fee order. If it is found that clients need legal representation, they are referred to Legal Aid.
Before people can participate in the clinic, they are screened by Legal Aid and must prove their eligibility. There is a residency requirement, and they must provide income and asset information that proves they are at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.
That’s why LaRocco hopes that people planning to attend an upcoming clinic will call her in advance to give her time to vet them. For the Sept. 15 clinic, people should call 888-534-1432 by Sept. 14.
No one is turned away from the clinic, however. The screening can take place there, if phoning in advance is not possible, she noted.
At the beginning of each clinic, LaRocco addresses all the clients as a group.
“We talk about divorce in Shelby County and what to expect,” she said. “Then we pair (clients) with individual attorneys.”
Catterson said her discussion with her volunteer attorney was relaxed and easy.
“The attorneys are very considerate. They don’t pressure you. All the decisions are your decisions. I had talked to two attorneys previously. They were judgmental. It was a lot of stress. The clinic was totally different,” she said.
She found that she had some options about things like whether or not she wanted to ask for alimony and whether she wanted to complete the paperwork at the clinic or take it with her to finish at another time.
“I went ahead and finished my paperwork there and filed it the next day,” she said. Ninety days later her divorce was final.
“It depends on the situation. Not every divorce happens in 90 days,” LaRocco said.
The filing fee for a divorce is $300. It is normally due when the case is filed, but with a waiver, clinic clients can postpone the payment and work with the court to set up a payment plan so it’s not payable all at once.
The clinics seem to be working well for all concerned.
“It’s been well organized,” Hegemann said. “I hope more people will take advantage of this. Hopefully, it will allow more people access to a lawyer.”
Reach the writer at 937-538-4824. Follow her on Twitter @PASpeelmanSDN.