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For Cincinnatians Who Can't Afford A Lawyer, Courthouse Help Center Serves As A Guide

Ann Thompson
The Help Center at the Hamilton County Courthouse is open Monday-Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Low-income Hamilton County residents wrongly facing eviction, struggling with third-party debt collection cases and small claims issues have a new legal resource. The Help Center, located right inside the Hamilton County Courthouse, is run by the Municipal Court, the Clerk's Office and the University of Cincinnati's College of Law.

An Ohio Supreme Court task force recommended creating court help centers, concluding "individuals unable to secure legal representation in civil matters are left with no choice but to navigate an unfamiliar, complex court system alone."

Hamilton County opened such a center in September 2017. It's staffed by a full-time attorney, a full-time paralegal and volunteer students and attorneys. Since opening, it's helped thousands of people get their cases resolved. They help with documents and teach clients how to present their cases.

Credit Ann Thompson / WVXU
Badriyyah Salaam (far left) explains her case to Marianna Bettman, UC Professor Emerita, David Sturkey with the Clerk's Office and Help Center Director Rob Wall (near right).

Badriyyah Salaam didn't know where to turn after her landlord threatened to evict her. This was after she paid a past due water bill he owed, and he still expected her to pay the full rent.

The Clerk's Office referred her to the Help Center. "Prepaid legal would only help me so long for this because I kept calling and Legal Aid said they couldn't help me because I wasn't the defendant," she says. "This was my only option."

She won her case and is awaiting payment.

In another case, a woman was facing eviction for nonpayment of rent, though she said she could prove she mailed it on time. On the day of the hearing, she was late after being caught in the long security line at the courthouse. The Help Center explained her options and helped her file for a new eviction trial. After she presented her defense, the court ruled in her favor.

Cincinnati had the 10th highest eviction rate in the country in 2017. The Hamilton County Municipal Court takes in an average of 300 new eviction filings every week. Those who run the center say there is a need.

It's had more than 5,000 visits, averaging 39 per day since it opened.

The Help Center is looking to expand the scope of its services and reinstate mediation in rent escrow disputes.

Ann Thompson has decades of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market and brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting.