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

Winnebago of justice serves those on the road less traveled

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Staff Writer
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A young man pokes his head into the Winnebago of justice, one foot in the doorway, the other on the steel steps outside the nation's first mobile legal self-help center.

He seems a little nervous.

Maybe that's because he just drove himself - despite having a suspended license - to the motor home's Tuesday stop at an Ojai park-and-ride lot, and attorney Tina Rasnow is advising him against getting behind the wheel.

He failed to bring the paperwork necessary for Rasnow to assist him in reinstating his license, and the diminutive director of Ventura County's Self-Help Legal Access Center wants him to come back - with a chauffeur. It's not long before both feet are out the door.

"I don't think he'll be back," Rasnow sighs, taking a seat on a bench. "I wasn't lecturing him about following the law, teaching him how to be a moral person, I was just letting him know what the consequences are."

She's right, though; the man doesn't come back.

Every other Tuesday, the mobile center winds its way along the tricky Highway 33 into the gorgeous Ojai valley, past the Mission-style downtown, and into a parking lot a block away from a community assistance program that provides a built-in, mostly low-income clientele.

The idea to create a mobile justice center was conceived by a former Ventura County court executive officer who wanted to revive the concept of the bookmobile. Its yearly budget is a mere $37,749 -  about as grassroots as it gets.

In 2000, the innovative mobile clinic won awards from both the American Bar Association and the Judicial Council. It is now receiving more flattery, in the form of imitation - both Fresno and Santa Clara counties are planning their own mobile centers, modeled on Ventura's.

Surrounded by the Topa Topa Mountains, the tiny village of Ojai is  a haven for the affluent, but a pocket of the population is very poor.

The nearest courthouse is about 20 miles away, a distance covered mainly by highway and rural road. But since the mobile center took to the highway in late 1999, the county's court system has been reaching out to unrepresented litigants in need of free legal assistance. The 35-foot Winnebago, white with blue trim, bears this stenciled message on its stern: "Our Court is here for the People we serve."

"Outreach is a struggle with us, because we're going to communities that traditionally have not been served, that are very marginalized," Rasnow said. "There's a lot of distrust of government institutions."

The mobile center's staff consists of Rasnow, or sometimes her Oxnard counterpart, Carmen Ramirez, and a driver trained to navigate the big motor home as well as to dispense legal information. People planning to file in pro per can pick up forms and get help with their legal issues, but they still must go to the Ventura court to file.

The center is on the road four days a week, dividing its time among the county's outlying areas, senior centers, homeless shelters and social-service programs. Reaching out to the poor is its primary mission, but all are welcome.

The day the illegal driver stopped in was a slow one for the mobile center, with only about a half-dozen people trickling in over three hours.

One was architect Jerome Land-field, who said he is accustomed to suing over contract issues in small-claims court, but this time was in need of information related to an unlawful detainer issue. This was his second trip to the center, and he stayed awhile to chat with Rasnow.

"My first visit here was very helpful - that's why I'm back," Landfield said. "I've had such bad experiences with small claims that I don't want to risk blowing this one in court."

Business is steady most days, so the mobile center rarely misses a stop. When the Winnebago broke down recently, staff attorney Ramirez filled her car with books and forms, hit the day's designated stop and served justice out of her trunk.