When we think about court proceedings, we tend to imagine lawyers in front of a judge. But in civil cases, most people — more than 80% of litigants — are on their own.
Access to the justice system is a fundamental right in our democracy. Yet navigating civil court proceedings can be confusing and frightening for those who can’t afford an attorney. This is especially true for people who are living in poverty, have limited English proficiency or have experienced the trauma of homelessness or domestic violence.
Each day, about 565 of these individuals find help at one of nine courthouse-based Self-Help Legal Access Centers in Los Angeles County. Run by local legal-services groups and staffed by lawyers and dedicated volunteers, the centers have been a lifeline for litigants requiring protection from domestic violence, resolving child custody disputes, seeking a divorce and halting an eviction to avoid homelessness.
Over nearly 20 years, these centers have been the key to the courthouse door for more than 1.5 million people in Los Angeles County. In 2019 alone, more than 150,000 people received help at the centers, at the minuscule cost to the county of just $18 per litigant. Yet it may soon disappear, despite the fact that the entire self-help network accounts for a tiny fraction of a percent of the county’s budget.
A decline in sales tax and other revenues in the wake of COVID-19 has put the Self-Help Legal Access Centers on the chopping block, threatening to leave domestic violence survivors without the help they need to find safety and stability, and to throw the county’s most vulnerable tenants into homelessness. We cannot afford to let this happen.
Litigants in 60% of the family law cases filed in Los Angeles County Superior Courts are served in the self-help centers, and close to half of them are women taking the first legal steps toward independence. They come to the courthouse, often in the midst of crisis, to find the legal tools they need to escape abuse and seek justice.
At the centers, litigants find staff trained to deal with trauma and volunteers who provide free assistance and guidance with emergency protective orders, divorces and custody orders. Staff members also connect parties to additional social support to help them and their children find safety and stability in their lives. Without the Self-Help Legal Access Centers, what will happen when these individuals go to the courthouse for help? They may leave and never come back.
The centers also provide a safety net for tenants at risk of being evicted and falling into homelessness. Last year, they assisted litigants in 40% of all eviction actions filed in L.A. County. After they are served with an eviction notice, tenants have just five days to respond in court. Self-help centers have ensured that tenants always have a place to go to get information they can trust and the free legal help they need — whether they are trying to stay in their home or simply get enough time to find another place to live.
Advocates who staff these centers are always on the lookout for cases requiring full representation, and they refer those cases to participating legal services organizations that provide their services for free. When the eviction moratoriums put in place in response to COVID-19 are lifted, the Self-Help Legal Access Centers will play an important role in preventing thousands of tenant evictions.
It would be penny-wise and pound-foolish to allow the time-tested self-help centers to die. It is a nettlesome paradox of government that taking a meat ax to a budget can often cost taxpayers more than it saves. The fact is that domestic violence, homelessness and other social challenges are also a burden on the county budget. If we have to pay our taxes, let it be to solve a problem, not exacerbate it.
Without continued funding, the county’s existing network of self-help centers will be dismantled, and the impact on low-income communities will be devastating. With the goal of keeping low-income residents housed and preventing the local homelessness crisis from worsening, we are facing challenging years ahead. We must use every tool at our disposal to reach those who need our help. The courtroom-based Self-Help Legal Access Centers are a key part of that strategy. Keeping them is morally and fiscally the right thing to do.
Zev Yaroslavsky is a former member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and now teaches public policy and history at UCLA. Laurie Zelon is a retired justice of the California Court of Appeal and founding chair of the California Commission on Access to Justice.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.