Legal Aid unveils new automated custody interview for parents seeking custody

Two new online tools developed by Maryland Legal Aid will make access to justice easier for a parent seeking an initial custody order for his or her children and for attorneys seeking to help clients complete court-required forms for filing an initial custody complaint.

The Child Custody and Visitation Interview is a website that interactively helps clients complete and fill out forms required by the circuit court to begin a custody proceeding—an online “automated custody interview.”

“Imagine you are a mother with two young children,” said Katherine Jones, Legal Aid’s assistant director of IT for law practice. “You just left your husband, and moved in with your mother. Your husband is threatening to take the children from you and move to Florida. What do you do?”

Before: If you make it to the courthouse before it closes, the clerk points you to a forms bank to select the forms you need to complete, sign, and return to the clerk—and there are over 30 documents to choose from.

“You take one of each, and realize that it is going to take a long time to complete all of the forms, writing the same information over and over again on each form,” Jones said. “And do you really need all of those forms? And what do they mean?”

After: With the new, easy-to-use online tool (which can be accessed from any computer connected to the Internet and a printer), access to justice is easier for this client, as well as anyone else seeking an initial custody order.

“When a client clicks on the link, an ‘avatar’ of a woman standing on a road leading to a courthouse invites the client to begin the process of seeking custody, visitation, or child support,” Jones said. “Links, denoted by bold orange type, or buttons offering additional information, answer questions a client might have about legal terms, or about what information is being requested as the client proceeds through the interview.”

Because the client is asked a series of questions about the facts of the case, she should be prepared with the full names, addresses, and birthdates of all possible parties to a case, as well as detailed information about her own financial situation before she accesses the website.

“However, if a client completes the interview, answering all of the questions asked, at the end of the interview the client has the option to preview, and then print, the court forms the program has chosen for them based on the information provided,” Jones said. “The client can then sign and take these court-approved forms to the clerk’s office to file to begin her custody case.”

The new website for advocates, Automated Documents Online, allows an attorney to conduct a full interview with any client seeking custody.

The website prompts the attorney to ask for specific information, but allows the attorney to formulate and provide whatever advice or information the client requests as the interview progresses. As specific information is provided on the website, it chooses which documents the client needs to file, and uses the information supplied to fill in the spaces on the appropriate court form.

When the attorney has asked all of the questions from the website interview, the attorney can print out the documents to review with the client, have the client sign the forms where necessary, and send the client with the forms to the clerk’s office to file the forms and begin the court case.

The new online tools were developed by Legal Aid, the Maryland Legal Assistance Network, the Chicago-Kent College of Law Center for Access to Justice & Technology, Capstone Practice Systems, Inc., and the Legal Services Corp. The two websites can be accessed at the Peoples Law Library (in the Family Law section under “Need Help with Maryland Custody Forms?”). The advocate specific site is available at MDJustice.org (in the Children and the Law Resource Center; click on New Automated Maryland Custody Forms).

The latest version of Adobe Flash is required to access the Child Custody and Visitation Interview. Most Maryland public libraries allow printing from public computers for a nominal fee.

For more information, call Katherine J. Jones at 443-604-4729; David Demski at 410-451-2892; or Joe Surkiewicz 410-951-7683.

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