On legal matters, a rise in free advice

When Melinda Salazar of Santa Paula, Calif., has legal questions so confusing that they leave her in tears, she finds free help inside a converted motor home.

That's where the Ventura County Superior Court operates a roving self-help center for local residents. In the past, Ms. Salazar stepped inside and asked for help in expunging her criminal record of a two-decade-old felony that was making it difficult to keep a job. This time, the formerly homeless mother of six wants to know how to answer a letter telling her to move out of her apartment.

"I don't have money for a private attorney," says Salazar. "They explain everything to me. They're not worried about how much money I give them."

Millions of Americans who, like Salazar, earn too little to afford an attorney wind up representing themselves in court. Even some people who can afford lawyers that charge hundreds of dollars an hour feel compelled to try the do-it-yourself route.

While self-representation can save litigants money, it often wastes time. Self-helpers often find it difficult to navigate the court system, and they tend to get bogged down with legal questions. As a result, such pro se cases can take them two to five times as long as one in which a client is represented by an attorney.

In response, more courts are offering everything from packets of forms written in plain English to seminars on how to file your own divorce.

Some courts have also expanded their self-help centers - once limited to family law - to address everything from auto accidents to small-business disputes, says Jona Goldschmidt, a Loyola University, Chicago, professor who has studied pro se litigation.

The effort is part of a trend by judges and lawyers to look at the public as customers instead of intruders on their domain, says Michael Ruiz, coordinator of the self-help center at Southern Illinois University's School of Law. "Courts are finally coming around to think that there are things they can do to make their [own] lives easier and provide a service to the public," he says.

For instance, in Broward County, Fla., where 65 percent of the people in domestic-relations cases now represent themselves, self-helpers can attend seminars at the local court on how to file for a divorce or modify a child-support payment. Other states have added websites where forms and guidebooks can be downloaded.

Ventura County's court decided to take the idea of a self-help center one step further, converting a recreational vehicle into a rolling office that visits neighborhoods where poor and immigrant clients live.

Each morning, the vehicle parks outside a different site - a public library, a retirement home, a homeless shelter. On Mondays, it stands in front of the Santa Paula welfare office to help farmworkers who might not otherwise be able to visit the court.

Inside, visitors watch videos explaining the court system, and throw questions at attorney Carmen Ramirez, the mobile center's coordinator.

"People have major misconceptions about how the law works, how the judicial system works, and what to do if you get into a problem with somebody," says Ms. Ramirez, who had previously worked as a Legal Aid attorney. "My job is to sift through the circumstances people have and point them in the right direction."

On a recent morning, Ramirez explained to a small businesswoman how to incorporate her business, told a young mother the process for obtaining a divorce, and tried to determine whether a driver could reduce some traffic fines by attending traffic school.

Tina Rasnow, Ventura County's self-help legal-center coordinator, says staff members can best assist with relatively straightforward legal problems such as a name change or guardianship. "Our center can walk them through this cumbersome confusing legalese," she says.

But self-help-center staffers can't provide legal advice or suggest the best course of action in more complicated adversarial situations, Ms. Rasnow adds.

State laws and ethical guidelines for attorneys bar self-help-center staff members from giving advice when they aren't retained as a client's lawyer.

Instead, court staff say they try to guide people with more complicated problems, including divorces involving children, to attorneys.

"We don't take the place of a private lawyer," says Rasnow. "I can't tell you what you should do. I can tell you what your options are."

Clients who can't afford full legal representation may still benefit from a brief consultation from a lawyer about various options to pursue.

Not all attorneys are keen on setting up a self-help center in their vicinity, says Prof. Goldschmidt. Some judges worry that encouraging people to represent themselves will just add more work. And lawyers may lose business. But Mr. Ruiz says more courts are realizing that helping pro se litigants actually ensures more efficient justice.

"Helping pro se people can prevent problems later on," says Ruiz. "These people aren't just going to go away."

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