California Bar Journal
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California Bar Journal

The State Bar of California


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Front Page - July 2001
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News / News Briefs
Two-year fee bill goes to governor
Janet Reno, low-cost MCLE highlight Annual Meeting
Stanley Mosk dies at 88
State Bar wins ABA's Harrison Tweed Award for pro bono, legal access, IOLTA efforts
Foundation will accept grant applications beginning July 16
Winnebago of justice serves those on the road less traveled
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Trials Digest
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Legal Tech - Matter management is not just for litigators
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From the President - Public members bring fresh views
Holding judges accountable
Letters to the Editor
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MCLE Self-Study
Alcohol and the workplace
Self-Assessment Test
MCLE Calendar of Events
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Ethics update...
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You Need to Know
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Public Comment
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Ethics Byte - Level field or a judicial practical joke?
Former DA disbarred for drunken-driving coverup
Attorney Discipline
Litigants without lawyers
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Continued from Page 1
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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 restraining order.

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 law.

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.

Carmen RamirezStaff 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."

Waiting list

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 list.

"It'll get worse," directing attorney Jane Preece predicted.

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 Campbell said.

"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."