The Clerk of Court of Volusia County – A Sterling Example

Kudos to Volusia County Clerk of Court Laura E. Roth and her Staff of Friendly and Knowledgeable Professionals

My mother (God rest her soul) used to say that it was always important to give credit where credit is due, because it keeps you right with the world.  I think it’s time that I share my experiences interacting with the Volusia County Clerk of Court over the past five years as a document preparer offering services to pro se litigants in my community – and – I also have a vested interest in keeping right with the world.

The Birth of Florida Document Specialists and Florida Family Adoptions

Florida Document Specialists and Florida Family Adoptions was born from a good place and big hearts.  Understanding the great need for legal document preparation services for pro se litigants who cannot afford an attorney, we decided to put ourselves out there and see what happened.  We took a leap of faith.  I quit my job at a local law firm, and my partner John had just retired from law enforcement.  That was over five years ago, and we have never looked back.

Since our inception, we’ve had the opportunity and privilege to provide non-lawyer document preparation services to thousands of residents state-wide who otherwise would have been left to navigate the court system on their own and with less than optimal resources to guide them.  Most of our customers simply cannot afford the legal fees charged by attorneys, and almost always they are the ones that need those services the most.  Our customers are typically the most needy and vulnerable in our communities.

Our Service Area Grew Quickly

We assisted our early customers with filing their paperwork in Volusia and Flagler Counties.  This quickly grew to neighboring counties and then state-wide as our reputation spread.  As our volume of work increased, so did our filings and experiences with different Clerk of Court offices throughout Florida.  Some of the experiences for our customers have been exceptional and others … well, not so much.  As our interactions with various county clerks grew over the years, one particular county consistently stood out from the rest in a good way.

The Volusia County Clerk of Court is a Sterling Example for Others to Emulate

If I had the power, I’d clone the Volusia County Clerk of Court and and their procedures for handling pro se cases and implement it statewide

Here’s how it goes in my backyard:

  • Pro se litigants in Volusia County can file their cases in person, by mail, or by using the Florida Courts E-Filing Portal;
  • Pro se cases are usually filed, assigned a case number, and available to view on the internet by the following business day;
  • Summons are issued immediately and sent out on docketing day along with standing family law orders;
  • Once the case is in the Volusia County Court system, it is processed by their case management team.  These superstars give the files an initial review and prepare referrals to the General Magistrate.  Order of Referral to the General Magistrate are then quickly sent to the Parties. This serves a dual purpose:  it allows uncontested cases to come to hearing quickly and efficiently; and, it permits the Court to have the pro se litigants before them to ensure that their case is moving forward and can be concluded within a reasonable period of time, if possible;
  • This is followed by a notice scheduling a Case Management Conference before the General Magistrate. This case management date is scheduled automatically by the Court on pro se cases.

Pro Se Parties are Treated Differently Depending on the Florida Judicial Circuit/County

I have strong feelings about the manner in which pro se parties are treated in the Florida court system.  As much as I would like to report that appropriate handling and treatment of pro se cases are equal across the board, the reality is that they are not.

There have been many published articles, studies, court decisions, on the topic of pro se litigants and their to access to justice, i.e. the courts.

You Have a Right to Access the Courts

It is the right of all pro se (self-represented) litigants in our great country to have meaningful access to our legal system, and some tolerance is required by the courts to facilitate this.

This issue is so significant that the Supreme Courts in several states have actually rendered decisions regarding the treatment of pro se parties so that they be treated fairly and equitably.  These decisions have gone so far as to clearly state that it is not a violation for a judge to make reasonable accommodations to ensure that pro se litigants have their opportunity to be heard.[1] Generally, these “reasonable accommodations” are not of a nature that would give a pro se party an unfair advantage.  27 states and the District of Columbia have readily adopted this ABA concept and have added such language to their Codes of Judicial Conduct.

There is no question that when a pro se party files a case, they must follow the rules of procedure currently in place, however, this does not mean that those very same rules should be used as hidden or lethal traps for people who do not have a law degree. No court, through action or inaction, should perpetuate an environment where unaided pro se litigants  have to negotiate a thicket of legal formalities at the risk of losing their right to be heard.  A Court culture such as this dangles the “carrot of  access  to justice” just out of reach of the poor and vulnerable who cannot afford to pay an attorney.  It is, effectively, a punch to the gut of those who may be in greatest need of relief that only a judge can give.  This cannot be permitted in the name of “fairness and impartiality”. 

My friends, if I digress it’s because I just spoke to a customer who filed her pro se case in another Central Florida court.  At what she believed would be her final hearing, she was told by the Judge that a document was missing from her file and that a final order could not be entered until the document was filed.  When the petitioner, whose case had already been reviewed by the court’s own pro se coordinator and deemed complete and ready for final hearing, asked the judge which document was missing,  the judge curtly replied, “It’s not my job to tell you.  You should have hired an attorney.”

The core of the spirit of the words “reasonable accommodations” and “access to justice” for pro se parties is not alive and well in all counties in the State of Florida.  I am, however, happy to report that in the Volusia County Clerk of Court’s office and in the courtrooms, this spirit is not only alive and well, but appears to be thriving.

Volusia County Gets It

Volusia County Court understands the value in moving cases forward and keeping a docket that, even if heavily burdened, is not bogged down by cases that shouldn’t be just sitting there because they were filed by pro se parties.  By handling their cases efficiently, they have served thousands of pro se litigants that received closure as the result of a court docket that is routinely reviewed to avoid unnecessary delays.

As a result, we at Florida Document Specialists and Florida Family Adoptions can appreciate the Volusia County Court’s efforts to fulfill the mission of access to justice for pro se parties.  While all cases may not end happily, they do end timely.

In the Volusia County Courthouse:  (These are actual examples, and this list doesn’t contain all of the horror stories)

  • Pro se litigants are not punished with the, “Form A”  that must be  filed (sometimes more than once) to  generate action on the part of the court.  In some counties, pro se pleadings literally sit on desks for weeks, and sometimes months without anyone looking at them;
  • Volusia County Court staff never tell pro se parties that:

“You’ll have to wait 30 days for the issuance of a Summons because you are not an attorney”;

“Your case is just going to sit here “until the cows come home”, because you don’t have an attorney;

  • There is no rule forcing working pro se litigants to miss work to stand in line for hours so they can  “personally” file their documents or any prohibition on e-filing your paperwork if you have the skill and facilities to do so;
  • There is no surcharge that pro se parties have to pay to the clerk of court as an “administrative fee” just because they did not have an attorney file their case.
  • Pro se parties are treated with respect and kindness by clerk staff at the City Island Annex and in the main DeLand office.

Count Yourself Fortunate

If you live in Volusia County, count yourself lucky.  If you are a pro se party that has to engage with the Court on a case you are filing, be polite, be appreciative, be patient, be respectful and always be kind.  You have an advantage that is NOT enjoyed by other pro se parties in other parts of Florida in that you have a dedicated and committed court staff. Once you have filed your case, rest assured that your case management court date letter will shortly follow.

Kudos to you – Volusia County Clerk of Court and their staff!

Blessings and blessings.

[1] American Bar Association, Model Code of Judicial Conduct, Rule 2.2, Comment 4

If you’d like to share you pro se experiences with the Florida Courts, please comment below:

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