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New program to help lighten legal paperwork
Valley Press ^ | on Saturday, October 2, 2004. | JESSICA LOGAN

Posted on 10/02/2004 3:10:30 PM PDT by BenLurkin

LANCASTER - After having her divorce papers returned to her almost 10 times, a woman representing herself in court decided to put away the inch-high stack of paperwork out of pure frustration. That stack of papers holding her past, present and future, stood idle for two years until a friend told the woman about the Neighborhood Legal Services, an organization that helps people represent themselves in family court.

"It's luggage, and you know it's there, but if you can't afford to get a lawyer … " the woman said.

Judge Mark Juhas and Commissioner Michael Convey decided to expand services offered to self-represented litigants who have difficulties navigating family law with an ambitious program that breaks new ground in Los Angeles County.

Assistance for people who represent themselves has been growing in recent years from a variety of sources, including organizations like the Neighborhood Legal Services and the courts.

At the same time, Juhas and Convey noticed that people who represent themselves could use more help to get through the process quicker because small problems would force them to return again and again.

They decided to set aside one day each week to help self-represented litigants, with each judicial officer taking on the duty two days a month. On that day they decided to invite the self-help center, a mediator who helps people compromise on difficult issues, and a facilitator who helps calculate financial and custody issues.

With all of these services on staff, self-represented litigants can learn what problems they have, fix them and return to court all in one day instead of taking days or weeks.

"This will make (the court) very user-friendly," Juhas said. "They will have all the various support teams in the room at one time to help them get access and get through."

This is one of the first programs of its kind in Los Angeles County, and the judicial officers hope it can be a model for other courts.

A similar program exists in Burbank, but it is smaller.

Convey and Juhas came up with the idea about eight months ago and have worked tirelessly with the court to coordinate all the services.

They also took vacation days to check out how similar programs work in other parts of the state, including one in Butte County that has been operating for about two years.

With this information under their belts, they launched the first day dedicated to self-represented litigants on Sept. 27.

Jeff Kruger wanted to have his case transferred to another county. But, first he had to fill out a form with the assistance of the self-help center.

"The informal setting puts you more at ease," said Kruger, who was able to get in and out in one day.

Some matters were more complicated. Robert Long is working on a divorce, but the fact that he has children and property to divide makes his case much more difficult.

Long said that he simply couldn't afford an attorney after an injury made him unable to work, but he said he needed help.

"I need it done as soon as possible," Long said.

The court also assisted with restraining orders. Susie Johnson wanted to get a restraining order amended, but the paperwork for that order is also demanding.

"When you are getting forms, you don't know which form to fill out," Johnson said. "If you're not an attorney, sometimes you don't know what to file."

Juhas and Convey said services on site are just the beginning. They hope to coordinate volunteer lawyers in the future to help people in the family court.

The judicial officers said the local attorneys are excited about the program because it will help free up time for their cases.

"It's a win-win for everybody," Juhas said.

Juhas and Convey said they are going to review the program in the weeks to come to see what changes need to be made.

"We're feeling our way along right now," Juhas said a few weeks before the first self-help day. "We're going to do a lot of fact-finding and kind of tweak as we go."

Juhas said that a big chunk of his cases have at least one party who is representing himself or herself.

People without the money have been able to get help from Neighborhood Legal Services in the Antelope Valley for years.

Caron Caines, the director of self-help for the Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County, said the organization helps people fill out complicated legal paperwork for divorces and housing issues for people in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys.

A room in the Michael D. Antonovich Antelope Valley Courthouse on the third floor is given over Tuesdays through Fridays to an attorney and paralegal who advise people on how they can fill out their paperwork and how to proceed with their legal situations.

With a typical divorce costing about $5,000 and legal assistance services costing from $500 to $1,000, many people simply wouldn't have the money or the legal expertise to move on with their lives and receive the services from the court that they need without assistance, Caines said.

The free services are open to everyone, but mainly lower-income people use the service. The court also offers to file the paperwork for free if the person makes little money.

The center helps the first 30 clients in the morning and the afternoon. Each person is given a packet of papers that explain in plain English, and Spanish, how to fill out the complex legal documents.

"They don't usually have a lot of property," Caines said. The divorces "are not legally complicated. But, there's a whole lot of paperwork."

Caines warned that people need to "come prepared to work" because the process is arduous. But the assistance they offer can make a big difference, she said.

"We're excited about the idea of empowering people," Caines said. "There are a number of women who don't believe they can do it."

She said the program inspires people because it makes the legal process accessible.

"We had to go to law school for three years to learn this stuff."

Caines said her self-help centers are part of a new movement to help people have access to the courts.

She said she is working with the Administrative Office of the Courts, which oversees courts in California, to help simplify forms for common people.

"Everybody in the state has a right to the courts," Caines said. "There should be a bar to justice."

TOPICS: Miscellaneous; Society

1 posted on 10/02/2004 3:10:30 PM PDT by BenLurkin
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