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
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
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.