CHICAGO (AP) _ Mountains of paperwork and confusing legal terms can be intimidating to the thousands of people who forgo a lawyer and represent themselves in court. But a federal court here is staffing a new help desk with an attorney to assist people involved in civil cases, and experts say it is believed to be the first of its kind in the nation.

The attorney offers free advice on how to file motions and interpret documents, and tells people if a lawsuit would be a waste of time.

``These are lay people and so they are walking into a legal world that is strange and alien to them,'' said Charles P. Kocoras, chief federal judge for the Northern District of Illinois. ``This desk will put people on the right track at the beginning of a case where there is often a lot of lost time.''

Kocoras said the help desk, which opened Thursday, will help unburden the judicial system by eliminating unnecessary cases. It also allows people to access proper legal forms.

``It helps the judges because we have to sift through these pleadings and see if they're comprehendible to us,'' he said. ``It eliminates a lot of stuff that we have to deal with at some point.''

In 2004, people without attorneys, excluding prisoners, filed 1,026 civil cases in the Northern District of Illinois, up from 913 cases the previous year, said Sheldon H. Roodman, executive director of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago.

``The cost of legal services is very high, and getting higher, so these cases are springing up in court systems throughout America,'' Roodman said.

Similar help desks have been effective in state, circuit and U.S. bankruptcy courts around the country to help low-income clients or those who simply choose not to hire an attorney, said Dick Carelli, spokesman for the federal courts' administrative office. But the Chicago help desk is believed to be the first to have a real attorney giving advice, he said.

Not everyone thinks the program cuts to the core of the problem.

Gilda Klein, 53, of Chicago, represented herself in a lawsuit she filed in 2001 against the U.S. Postal Service, claiming she was unjustly fired. She said federal agencies that investigated her complaints created obstacles even before she could file the suit, which was dismissed in 2002.

``The whole process of filing complaints even before you get to court was too bureaucratic,'' she said. ``People get lost in the process even before they get to court.''

The help desk was the brainchild of the U.S. District Court and the Chicago Bar Foundation. The Bar Foundation, the charitable arm of the Chicago Bar Association, supplied more than $100,000 for the project.

``A lot of people, not having anywhere else to turn, come to court and file something that may not have any merit,'' said Bob Glaves, executive director of the Chicago Bar Foundation. ``If they had the opportunity to speak to an attorney beforehand, they might understand that court isn't their best bet. On the flip side, if a person hasn't been able to articulate his case, the desk will be able to help those with valid cases.''

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Associated Press Writer Michael Tarm contributed to this report.

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On the Net:

Illinois Legal Aid: www.illinoislegalaid.org

U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois: www.ilnd.uscourts.gov

Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago: www.lafchicago.org

The Chicago Bar Foundation: http://chicagobarfoundation.org