telling them what we're not going to do for
them,'' Sims said. "We should tell them, within legal
parameters, how we're going to assist them."
The signs provided clerks an excuse to ignore the
court's "customers," Sims said, and made pro per litigants feel
punished for their efforts.
It's a drastic departure from traditional
courthouse culture, but one Sims said begins to knock down the walls
of the labyrinthine legal system.
"Basically, what I'm trying to do is change
the culture and philosophy of the clerk's office to be more
customer-service oriented than steeped in policy rules and
regulations, because it ironically ends up with us spending more time
trying to undo the consequences," he said.
Change in attitude
Sims' vision of a customer-friendly court
represents what David Long, the State Bar's director of research,
calls "a dramatic change in attitude."
"There was a time when the legal system and the
judiciary were in denial - they weren't willing to admit there was
a problem," Long said.
Blackmun's dissent included a stern warning
that the Faretta decision would cause "procedural problems . . .
that will visit upon trial courts in the future." He was right.
By the mid-1990s, the bench and bar had declared
the flood of lawyerless family law parties a crisis in the courts. A
1997 State Bar memorandum on "the pro per crisis in family law"
noted that with more than half of all family law litigants appearing
in court without attorneys, calendars were being clogged by people who
knew little or nothing about navigating the legal system.
The state legislature attempted to stanch the
flow in 1995 by establishing in every California county a family law
facilitator's office, which assists litigants primarily with matters
related to child support.
But still, the number of unrepresented parties
shows no signs of shrinking: Santa Clara County Judge Jack Komar says
current county statistics show 70 percent of family law filings are in
pro per, and San Francisco Judge Donna Hitchens reports that the
numbers are similar in her court.
Family law isn't the only area inundated with
pro per litigants. A 1997 study by the Administrative Office of the
Courts found that more than 80 percent of domestic violence cases are
handled without attorneys. People are largely going it alone in
landlord/tenant issues as well.
"It's staggering,'' Hitchens said. "I
think there's still a major crisis. But lots of communities are
developing strategies to deal with that."
Orange County kiosks
The Legal Aid Society of Orange County installed
two sophisticated web-based kiosks, called I-CAN!,
in that county's family law center, which provide forms and
dispense information in English, Spanish and Vietnamese on a variety
of matters, including domestic violence, paternity issues, small
claims and unlawful detainer.
Several counties, including Los Angeles and
Contra Costa, have opened domestic violence clinics to aid people in
getting through the 94 pages of instruction and 24 pages of
application - available only in English - required to file a
And full-service, self-help legal centers,
modeled after one begun by Ventura County in 1998, are springing up.
Van Nuys recently opened such an office in its court, and Santa Clara
County plans to open a similar center in November, Komar said.
The Self-Help Legal Access Center of Ventura
County was the first court-run center created to assist litigants
going it alone. Stationed just past the metal detectors on the
court's first floor, the center is stocked with legal books and
films, court forms, computer terminals and video stations.
Five days a week, the center provides assistance
to anyone needing it, regardless of income, in areas outside family
On a weekday afternoon in June, director Tina
Rasnow helped 20-year-old Matthew Crossley research contesting a
speeding ticket. She gently let him know that such tickets can be
tough to beat.
"I really don't think I'm going to
win,'' Crossley said. "I just want to try it anyway. I'm going
to have fun with it."
A satellite center in nearby Oxnard is in the
heart of the low-income La Colonia district, within walking distance
of the neighborhood's housing projects. The center may be the
country's only court-run legal center set in the community rather
than the courthouse.
attorney Carmen Ramirez assists the primarily low-income,
Spanish-speaking clientele, and another attorney handles family law
issues once a week.
Ramirez explains to those who drop in that the
center's attorneys do not advocate for one party over another.
In fact, the attorneys often assist both parties
in preparing their forms.
"The wife will come in the morning, the husband
will come in the afternoon," Ramirez said.
"Sometimes they come together. Now and again,
the (new) girlfriend comes too."
Ventura County Presiding Judge Charles Campbell,
who spearheaded the development of the self-help centers, said that
because the program is court-run, the attorneys must remain neutral.
"I would like to see some kind of legislation
that would allow the attorneys to give advice to people as to what
would be the best course of action,'' Campbell said. "We
shouldn't be taking sides unless we're allowed to by statute.
It's a sticky area and it's uncomfortable that they don't allow
us to go one step further."
For now, Ramirez said, she uses the same standard
former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart used to define
pornography: "I know it when I see it."
In Los Angeles County, the Maynard Toll Pro Per
Counseling Center is run by the L.A.'s Legal Aid Foundation. On a
Friday morning last month, about 25 people were on the day's waiting
"It'll get worse," directing attorney Jane
Because the center is not run by the courts, it
offers attorney-client privilege as well as legal advice, and staff
often wind up representing their clients in court.
"A lot of clients are angry because we don't
tell them what they want to hear,'' Preece said. "(But) I
don't believe they can use general advice."
"It's a legal fiction to say that (other
programs) aren't giving out advice,'' she said. "I don't
think the conflict is that big of a problem.''
Preece said attorneys at Maynard Toll file cases
"like crazy," weeding out some of the worthless ones. But she
believes their work adds to the number of pro per litigants, rather
than reducing it.
"I could conceive of that, that they could
cause more people to come to court - but that's good," Judge
"Why shouldn't more people exercise their
rights to access justice? We'll just have to accommodate them
somehow. We'll get more judges. We'll find time for them, the
system always does."