Foundation grant helps demystify the bankruptcy process

Judge McEwen Headshot

Judge McEwen

In 2006, when then Florida Bar Foundation Secretary Kathleen McLeroy first heard about the uphill battles faced by those who file pro se bankruptcy cases, she knew something had to be done.

Just a year earlier, the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act brought higher legal fees and costs. That, coupled with a slumping economy, would only create more problems in pro se bankruptcy cases.

“What I saw was some sort of program the Foundation could fund that would provide assistance for individuals who would file bankruptcy petitions without counsel,” McLeroy said.

Since then, McLeroy — with encouragement from Chief Judge Paul M. Glenn of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Middle District of Florida — suggested the Tampa Bay Bankruptcy Bar Association (TBBBA) and Bay Area Legal Services (BALS) apply for a grant from the Foundation to fund the Bankruptcy Pro Se Assistance Project.

The project comprises a video called “Bankruptcy Basics,” which takes pro se filers step-by-step through the bankruptcy filing process, and a series of pamphlets.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Catherine Peek McEwen, also on the Middle District bench in Tampa, was the script writer, adapter and producer, and bankruptcy court employees and a host of volunteer lawyers from the TBBBA helped.

Through its Improvements in the Administration of Justice (AOJ) Grant Program, the Foundation provided $14,500 to create the video and pamphlets, and another $15,000 last year for the video to be translated into Spanish and Haitian Creole. The second grant, made to the Bankruptcy Bar Association of the Southern District of Florida, was coordinated by Judge Laurel M. Isicoff of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Florida.

The video is available on DVD from federal bankruptcy courts in Florida and online through their Web sites. The Spanish version is on the Web site of the Middle District’s bankruptcy court, and the Haitian version and pamphlets will soon be available.

McEwen said the creation of the bankruptcy video couldn’t have come at a better time.

“Our filings were ramping up and the economy is going haywire, McEwen said. “It is intimidating to be a part of the bankruptcy process. It takes the stress factor down a little for those who have the opportunity to see the video.”

Left to sift through stacks of confusing paperwork, pro se filers would often miss key court hearings, which could hurt their chances of filing successfully.

“For the most part, if you had a pro se bankruptcy case and the petition was not perfect, then it would get dismissed and you’d have to start all over again,” McLeroy said.

Consequently, bankruptcy courts were backed up by incorrectly filed cases.
According to BALS, before the new bankruptcy law, 15 percent of bankruptcy cases filed in Florida were pro se and nearly a quarter of those were dismissed.

After the act was implemented, the filing of pro se bankruptcy cases increased slightly to 17 percent, but the percentage of those dismissed shot up to nearly half.

“We are very grateful for The Florida Bar Foundation,” said Isicoff, who often refers pro se filers to the video for education on the bankruptcy process, such as the differences between chapters 7 and 13, mandatory court hearings, and available legal assistance.

The DVD series was originally created for Florida pro se filers, but after word about the series spread, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts developed a national version of the video for use by all bankruptcy courts in the country. The national version is featured on numerous Web sites, including those of the U.S. Courts and the American Bankruptcy Institute.
The national version of the video has logged more than 173,000 Web views since it was launched on the Office of the U.S. Courts Web site in October 2008.

The Spanish and Creole versions of “Bankruptcy Basics” may also go national.

“This has been an amazing project — well beyond what was envisioned at the outset — and represents collaboration at its finest,” McLeroy said. “It’s great to see a relatively small grant morph into a product that can help so many.”