Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Moyer, a Sandusky native, knows home foreclosures are a big problem back home in Erie County and across Ohio.
Moyer is asking the courts and Ohio attorneys to reach out and help as many homeowners as they can.
The chief justice has asked judges who handle foreclosure cases to use mediation to resolve as many cases as possible.
And he's asked Ohio lawyers to volunteer in foreclosure cases to help families who can't otherwise afford a lawyer.
A record number of foreclosure cases in 2007 have helped contribute to the growing workload in the Erie County courts, said the clerk of courts, Barbara Johnson.
Erie County had 520 new foreclosure cases in 2007, out of a total of 1,096 civil cases. That compares to 450 foreclosure cases in 2006, 324 in 2005 and 86 in 1996.
So far in 2008, Erie County has had 76 new foreclosure cases.
Moyer said the Supreme Court has developed a model mediation program to help courts set up programs.
"Mediation will assist courts in managing the explosion of foreclosure cases on their dockets for a more efficient administration of justice while assisting Ohio's most vulnerable homeowners facing the prospect of losing their homes," Moyer said.
Foreclosure cases in Erie County are handled by common pleas judges Roger Binette and Tygh Tone.
Binette and his magistrate, Steve Bechtel, said last week Erie County does not have a mediation program.
But they said they are trying to help homeowners work out payment plans so the foreclosure cases can be dismissed.
The two said they have discussed having a "cooling off" period of 90 to 120 days after a foreclosure lawsuit is filed, during which no court action would be taken.
That would give homeowners time to figure out a course of action, they said.
Tone said he's been trying to informally mediate cases when it appears to be possible people have a chance to make payments.
He said that he can order bank officials to come to the courthouse and talk to the defendants.
Tone said he's willing to consider the cooling off period proposed by Binette.
"I have to keep an eye on being fair to both parties, which would include the bank," he said.
Bechtel and Tone both said it's absolutely essential for homeowners to respond to a foreclosure lawsuit by filing an answer. If a homeowner does nothing, judges have no choice but to rule in a bank's favor when a bank asks for a summary judgment, they said.
It isn't necessary to have a lawyer to file an answer. Just make sure a written answer is filed, even if you have to write it yourself, Bechtel said.
"We are very, very reluctant to default someone who has made an answer," he said.
Tone said many attorneys will do an initial consultation for free or for only a small fee. If you are sued for foreclosure, talk to a lawyer and see if he or she thinks you have a chance to save your home, the judge suggested.
Ken Brown, a spokesman for the Ohio Supreme Court, said the program to provide free volunteer lawyers for homeowners who otherwise can't afford them is supposed to begin in early to mid-March.
Moyer issued a call for help several weeks ago and 200 to 250 lawyer answered, he said. A more specific letter from Moyer spelling out what the chief justice has in mind is being mailed out to every attorney in Ohio, Brown said.
Sandusky attorney John Frankel, the president of the Erie County Bar Association, said his group is setting up a pro bono committee to encourage attorneys to do volunteer work. Frankel said he hopes the committee will be able to find lawyers willing to represent people in foreclosure cases.
Attorneys believe they have an obligation to do pro bono, or unpaid work, he said.
"It's something we want to push and try to give something back for this community," he said.
Foreclosure law is a legal specialty, so it will be important to find volunteer attorneys who understand how to handle foreclosures or are willing to be trained, Frankel said.
"Unless you fully understand this, you could be doing quite a disservice to people," he said. "You wouldn't want a podiatrist dealing with a brain tumor."