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California

As more people go without a lawyer, courts offer self-help services. Advice from the judge? No way

The Self-Help Resource Center at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse. More and more people are representing
The Self-Help Resource Center at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles. More and more people are representing themselves in civil court cases.
(Los Angeles Superior Court)

The divorced couple appearing before Judge Helen E. Zukin was fighting over visitation.

The man said he had kicked his heroin addiction and wanted to spend time with his children, whom he hadn’t seen in three years. His ex was against it, saying she did not trust that he was clean, and that he had let his children down before.

Neither party had an attorney, and it showed. At one point, the man committed a rookie mistake. Zukin turned her gaze on him.

“This is not TV court,” she told him. “No one interrupts me. We have very strict rules how we behave here.”

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The recent scene in Los Angeles Superior Court reflects a trend in courtrooms across Calfornia: People increasingly are representing themselves, and it falls to judges and other officials to demystify legal processes and decorum.

Some courthouses have written tips for the self-represented: Get plenty of sleep the night before your hearing. Arrive at least 30 minutes before your case is scheduled. Do not chew gum, eat or drink in court or wear shorts, T-shirts, tank tops or flip-flops. Never raise your voice. Address the judicial officer as “Your Honor” or “Judge.”

The divorced couple — whom Zukin summoned by number and addressed as “mother” and “father” — were among an estimated 4.3 million litigants who now go to court each year in California without an attorney.

After wrist-slapping the man, Zukin explained to the woman that California law favors involvement by both parents, but the mother was unconvinced. The father had been sober before and then lapsed.

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“I need more proof,” the woman said.

The judge ordered drug testing. If the father continued to be sober, he could have monitored visits, Zukin said. The cost of the monitor would be shared by both parents.

“That’s not fair,” the woman said.

“Thank you very much,” the judge said. “That’s it.”

The woman rushed away in tears.

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Zukin sees many non-represented litigants from her perch on the eighth floor of the downtown Stanley Mosk Courthouse.

Judicial officials say their numbers appeared to swell after the last recession. They include the poor, to be sure, but also middle-class people and young adults accustomed to learning skills from YouTube and other internet sites.

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According to court surveys, three-quarters of all civil cases have at least one side unrepresented, and only 10% of family law and eviction disputes have lawyers on both sides. Unlike criminal defendants, the law does not entitle civil litigants to an attorney.

In response, the courts have expanded self-help services. After years of lobbying by judicial leaders, the state last year nearly tripled funding for self-help programs to $30 million.

California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who heads the state judiciary, recalled that her mother went to court decades ago without a lawyer to stave off an eminent domain eviction. She lost.

“There was no self-help center to assist her then, and I’m pleased that we now have them in every superior court in the state,” Cantil-Sakauye said. “They are the front lines of justice in California.”

Nearly 1.2 million litigants in California are expected to take advantage of the services this year. A 2017 study by state judicial leaders found that poor litigants who received legal help in civil cases under a pilot project fared better than those with no assistance. In some cases, the help reduced court costs.

The day the divorced couple appeared, more than two dozen people were in line for self-help services downstairs on the fourth floor.

Thomas Tophia, 55, a drug and alcohol counselor, had lined up outside the Los Angeles courthouse at 6:40 a.m. for a morning self-help workshop, but it had filled up before he reached the front of the line.

He was upset that he had to skip a day of work to attend the afternoon session. He was new at his job. But money was tight, he said, and he could not afford a lawyer to represent him in a divorce.

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Although self-help staff are barred from advising litigants on legal strategy, Tophia said he had formulated his own — “ask for more and settle for less.”

Lawyers, paralegals, college students and recent graduates at self-help centers walk litigants through the legal process, explaining options, how to fill out forms, file cases and move them through various steps to completion, either by agreement, default or trial.

Most litigants require three workshops, which are held in multiple languages.

Court staff, who sometimes assist opposing parties in a case, are not permitted to recommend legal tactics.That can be frustrating for some litigants.

Daniel and Juliana Yee, both retirees, went to court in San Francisco earlier this year to force a commercial tenant to pay them $7,000 in back rent.

After meeting with the court’s self-help center, they filed their papers, obtained a hearing date and hired someone to serve their tenant.

But the tenant did not show.

Daniel Yee, seated with his wife at the plaintiffs table, politely explained their predicament to San Francisco Superior Court Judge Carl Chamberlin. He listened, and before concluding the hearing, asked if they needed anything else.

“I need some advice,” Yee said.

“That I can’t do,” Chamberlin replied. “I can’t give you legal advice.”

Chamberlin told the Yees he would rule on their case within 30 days and notify them by mail of his decision.

Yee looked flustered and remained seated. What would he do with the ruling?

A clerk handed him a written set of instructions: “How to collect your money after you win your case.”

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Even for those without lawyers, going to court is not cheap. The cost to file a case in California is $435, though it can be waived for people who cannot afford it.

Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Terri A. Mockler, in her fourth year as a family law judge, said she is comfortable dealing with people representing themselves.

“I treat every litigant the same, whether they have an attorney or not,” she said. “I do spend more time explaining things to the self-represented litigants in terms of the process.”

She said unrepresented litigants often are more intransigent than those with lawyers, who can reduce expectations and press for settlement.

Self-represented litigants also often don’t understand what a judge needs to know before making a ruling, she said.

To handle the huge demand for help, courts are increasingly relying on technology, including self-help pages on websites.

San Diego’s self-help center offers Skype appointments with a lawyer, and Butte County works with other rural counties to offer workshops and other services via Zoom conferencing.

Courts in Los Angeles, Orange and Napa counties also are experimenting with software to help the unrepresented fill out legal forms. Los Angeles County runs about 450 self-help workshops a month.

Sheldon Paine, 26, wearing a maroon and orange jumpsuit, appeared before Zukin without a lawyer recently to try to get visits with his young daughter.

The girl’s mother had moved to Las Vegas. Paine, a boxer, had been ordered to pay $10,000 in back child support, but he said he had no money. He lives in his vehicle.

He said he hoped the girl was his daughter, but he also needed a DNA test. The mother had texted him recently that he was not the father. The mother wasn’t present in court.

“I need to be assured that mother had notice of this hearing,” Zukin told him.

Paine said he did not know her address but knew where her mother and grandmother lived. He then began to tell a story about one of his visits with his daughter.

“Sir, I need to stop you,” the judge said. “I haven’t found that the mother has been given notice of this hearing.”

She referred him to the self-help center.

“You need to come here and show me due diligence was done to locate grandmother and great-grandmother,” the judge said.

Lawyers in the self-help centers in Los Angeles and San Francisco both said they believed litigants always were better off with lawyers.

“Life would be easier for them,” said Kathleen Dixon, Los Angeles’ managing self-help lawyer. “But do they need one to get a fair hearing? No.”

maura.dolan@latimes.com

Twitter: @mauradolan


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