If you can't afford a lawyer, or it would cost more to pay the lawyer than what your legal question is worth . . .
If your question is not too complicated and relates to a common legal issue such as divorce, wills, work injuries, signing a contract or buying a house . . .
Or if your legal question hasn't been answered in this column, and you're tired of waiting week to week . . .
. . . you may be able to get your answer by telephone.
Tel Law Inc. a nonprofit corporation sponsored by the Riverside-San Bernardino County Bar Assn., is composed mainly of volunteer lawyers. They write and narrate three- to seven-minute, tape-recorded messages about law and, in some instances, distribute them to other bar associations and community organizations throughout California.
Most of the tapes have been written by attorneys; some are based on pamphlets distributed by the State Bar or reports issued by state consumer agencies.
Tel Law saves the county clerk a lot of time, according to Philip H. Robb, a San Bernardino deputy district attorney who serves on Tel Law's board of directors. Instead of explaining the legal ins and outs of simple forms, consumers are told to call the Tel Law operator at (714) 824-2300.
To be sure, the service does not answer specific questions but will play a tape on a general topic. The service tries to "provide a full range of subjects that might be of interest to average citizens," Robb says.
Some examples: automobile lemon laws, taxes when you die, noisy neighbors, sexual harassment at work and subpoenas. More than 225 tapes are available. Some, especially the immigration tapes, are available in Spanish.
Among the most popular tapes recommended by the county clerk's office are: "How to Get a Marriage License," "Confidential Marriages" and "How to Become a Naturalized Citizen."
At your request, the Tel Law operator will send you a list of the available subjects, and you may ask to hear tape No. 82 for a summary of the services available.
You won't be charged for the call by the bar association, but you will be charged the normal rate by the phone company if it is a toll or long-distance call from your area.
The San Bernardino-Riverside Tel Law service receives about 3,000 calls per month, Robb says. In its 10 years of operation, the service has played tapes for more than 250,000 callers.
Although operating with less than a full slate of tapes, Tel Law services are available from other California bar associations and nonprofit community organizations, which make them available by phone in their areas free of charge:
In Long Beach, call the local bar association, (213) 432-5913, for a brochure listing available tapes and (213) 549-9000 to hear a tape played.
The Pasadena Bar Assn., (818) 795-1203, which receives about 230 calls a month, has about 85 tapes available. The most popular ones are about landlord-tenant problems and divorce, according to Jean Moore, executive director of the association.
In Sun City (Riverside County), call Tel Law at (714) 679-1173 or Sun City Concern Inc. (714) 679-1173. In Victorville, you can reach the service at (619) 243-4762 or Victor Valley Community Services Council at (619) 245-8592.
The Tel Law service provided by the Orange County Bar Assn., (714) 835-5294, is the only service outside of the San Bernardino-Riverside Tel Law that offers the full complement of tapes. It's supported by a grant from the First American Title Insurance Co. and the First American Trust Co.
Like this column, Tel Law cannot replace a lawyer or provide legal advice for a specific problem, but it can and does provide a valuable source of practical information about laws, consumer problems and legal issues.
And consumers aren't the only ones who listen to the tapes.
Though they might not want to admit it to their clients, some lawyers call and listen too.
Attorney Jeffrey S. Klein, a member of The Times' corporate legal staff, cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about the law. Do not telephone. Write to Legal View, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.