A basic understanding of legal terms and courtroom procedures can be daunting for anyone who tries to get a divorce without the help of a lawyer.

To help smooth the process of self-represented divorce cases, the Connecticut Judicial Branch has gone into the movie business.

No, family court judges are not trying to win an Academy Award with a remake of the classic family drama Kramer vs Kramer. Instead, court administrators are producing instructional videos to teach the masses how to resolve a divorce case. The hope is that the videos will help real-life litigants to more effectively navigate the system.

The production costs are being covered in part by a $20,000 grant from State Justice Institute, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit corporation that awards grants with the intent of improving the quality of justice in state courts.

Technical support, including help writing scripts for the videos, is being provided through a partnership between the Judicial Branch and the New Haven Legal Assistance Association.

“Some people are visual learners, and some people have limited literacy skills, so we found the videos are a great way to demystify the court system and help people feel more comfortable using the courts,” said Susan Nofi-Bendici, the executive director of the New Haven-based legal aid organization, who worked on the videos in an advisory capacity.

“Look, a video is never going to be as good as lawyer,” she said, “but if we can’t meet the legal demand for providing legal services for everyone, at least we can give a lot of support to people by providing them with information on how to represent themselves.”

Since the Judicial Branch video program started in June, two of the instructional videos have been completed and put on its website, as well as on YouTube. The first to be uploaded in the news section of the Judicial Branch website is called “Your Uncontested Divorce.”

More recently, a seven-minute video, titled “How to File For Divorce,” was added. With court clerk, secretaries and even a judge “acting” out the roles of court personnel and divorcing couples in front of the camera, both videos walk viewers through the steps to file for a divorce in Connecticut Superior Court.

The videos show viewers the various forms that are filed in divorce cases. Key phrases that are used in court are clearly defined.

In the first video, for example, the narrator, Jim Lawlor from the Waterbury Court Service Center, instructs viewers by using simple, everyday language. “Broken down irretrievably,” Lawlor says. “This is the most common reason people give for wanting a divorce. It means there is no hope of the spouses getting back together.”

Late-Night Viewing

Krista Hess, who is the court service center programs manager for the Judicial Branch, said the idea for creating instructional videos has been tossed around for a few years.

The idea for the videos was born out of the strategic plan created by the Self-represented Parties Committee. The committee was formed in 2008 to study the changing legal landscape and to look for ways to implement tools and resources to adapt to the growing number of self-represented parties in the courts.

The idea was to increase the availability of information, to better help pro se litigants navigate the court system in an efficient and timely manner.

Hess was on the committee. She said members agreed videos would be a good educational resource, to be used in addition to help center locations and law libraries that provide instructional materials at 13 of the state’s 15 judicial districts.

“Primarily, the idea is that since courts are only open from 9 to 5, and people have to go into the courts to get that information, that could be problematic for a lot of people,” Hess said. “If we provide electronic access to the instructional materials, people can watch them when they get home from work, even if it’s 11 o’clock at night.”

Many court employees appeared in the videos, including clerk’s office staff, foreclosure mediators, court service center workers and marshals.Judge Gould, who enjoyed narrating instructional information, Hess said. “We’re really trying to give people a very basic understanding of what they might expect in court,” she said. “For example, when they go to the courthouse, they will have to go through a metal detector, and when they go to court, they will have to stand and raise their right hand and be sworn in’.”

A third video was recently created on filing restraining orders, but it hasn’t yet been posted online. All of the videos are available in English, Spanish and Polish. Hess said each of the videos took about six months to complete. Other possible court areas that could benefit from similar videos include small claims, housing and foreclosure, “where we have the largest concentration of self-represented parties,” Hess said. •