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The Fifth Judicial Circuit covers Citrus, Hernando, Marion, Lake and Sumter counties.

Navigating through the court system without much direction can be stressful.

That could go double for people fighting in family court without much money or an attorney for a divorce, child custody or a parenting case plan.

There are many detailed forms that need to be filled out in order to move forward with a case involving families and children, and any misstep or oversight can delay progress and increase costs.

To help the self-represented or indigent make sure they have the paperwork needed and filled out completely, Florida’s Fifth Judicial Circuit recently started a free self-help program at the Citrus Courthouse.

“It makes sure that we can take care of this in one hearing,” circuit spokesman and general counsel Jeff Fuller said about improving efficiency. “It allows us not to necessarily expedite things, but allows for a more effective use of judicial resources.”

“To try and provide help for people who need the very basics,” added Circuit Court Judge Richard “Ric” Howard, who’s also the administrative judge at Citrus County’s courthouse. “It’s one more of those little things that people don’t know what we do, and it doesn’t cost nothing.”

For more information about the self-help program, visit tinyurl.com/y3ze982f or call 352-341-7007.

Cheryl Bunnell, family court manager for the circuit, said the program’s goal is to get cases processed in between four and six weeks.

This starts with someone getting the paperwork needed to begin the proceedings.

Forms are available online from the Florida Supreme Court, at tinyurl.com/y4jwxjj8. There is also an application available for mobile devices, called “Court Help.”

Packets of forms can also be purchased in person for up to $40 with the Citrus County Clerk of Courts, on the first floor of the courthouse, 

It’s up to the parties involved to fill out the paperwork on their own. Neither the clerks or the circuit’s self-help staff are attorneys, and can’t provide legal advice.

“The paperwork is all fill-in-the-blank paperwork but it’s very extensive,” Bunnell said. “We’re not helping them fill it out,” Bunnell said. “We’re looking for the documents that are required in order to process their case.”

Once the parties believe they have what they need filled in, they can take it to the self-help office on the third floor of the courthouse, next to the double doors that split the main hallway.

Office hours are from 9 to 11 a.m. and from 2 to 4 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; and from 8:30 to 11 a.m. and from 2 to 4 p.m. on Wednesday. No appointment needed.

Self-help staff will review the paperwork to make sure it’s complete before handing it back to the party to file with the clerk’s office to send to a magistrate for a recommendation to a judge.

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Contact Chronicle reporter Buster Thompson at 352-564-2916 or bthompson@chronicleonline.com.

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