As legal tangles go, the troubles of Jose Macias were relatively easy to sort out.
While applying for a loan, the Oxnard man learned that he owed money on a debt he knew nothing about. He was told to pay up or face legal action. He gave $150 to a lawyer who failed to give any advice in return.
That is how Macias became the first customer of a drop-in clinic providing legal aid to those least able to afford it.
Poor and unemployed, the 63-year-old farm worker arrived at the downtown Oxnard clinic with a wad of paperwork and a plea for help.
"We're going to try to help you," said Cathy Bozek, a Camarillo attorney who helped launch the free legal center. "It looks like what this is is just mistaken identity and what we have to do is get to the bottom of it."
After months of planning, the legal clinic debuted Wednesday night in the storefront office of California Rural Legal Assistance.
It is open to anyone, with any legal problem, who is poor and cannot afford a private attorney.
Bozek and Ventura attorney Claire Lewis are the coordinators, and so far about a dozen lawyers have volunteered to staff the center, pledging to guide low-income clients through the maze of court paperwork and procedure.
"My idea is that this should be a clinic for the poorest of the poor," said Lee Pliscou, CRLA's directing attorney and a clinic volunteer. "We want to offer this to people who really can't afford a lawyer but really need one."
Free and low-cost legal clinics already operate in Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley and Moorpark. In addition, the Ventura County Bar Assn. runs a free family-law and bankruptcy clinic weekly at the Ventura College of Law as well as a low-cost lawyer-referral service.
But the need for cut-rate legal services in Ventura County is far greater than what those clinics can provide.
"All of us combined don't meet the needs of people who really want legal advice and information," said Steve Henderson, executive director of the 900-member county bar. "It's safe to say that this new clinic is certainly fulfilling an unmet need."
The Oxnard clinic is the result of two unrelated efforts pulled together under one roof.
In response to a growing need for legal aid at El Centrito De La Colonia, an Oxnard social services agency, criminal defense attorney Jorge Alvarado assigned student intern Leticia Alvarez to lay the groundwork for the clinic.
By last month, the USC senior had shaped the idea to the point where she was recruiting lawyers to staff the center. She sent a letter to CRLA attorneys seeking volunteers.
What Alvarez didn't know was that Pliscou at CRLA and Cathy Bozek had been fashioning a similar program.
"I always thought it would be wonderful to have a legal clinic for people who really can't afford legal help," said Bozek, a mother of two who is just a couple of years out of law school.
"To get through the legal process, there are so many procedures and forms," Bozek added. "And procedurally, if you don't do it right you're not going to get anywhere. And if you don't do it right, you're going to lose."
Joining forces, the independent efforts culminated Wednesday night in the grand opening of the downtown Oxnard legal clinic.
Five minutes after it opened, Macias walked through the door. Then came a man who was having problems with the Department of Motor Vehicles. Then a man who wanted help filing for divorce.
The legal problems of the poor differ little from those of the general population.
They need help filing for bankruptcy and sorting out child-custody issues. And they need help resolving landlord-tenant disputes and filling out workers' compensation forms.
Above all, they need help negotiating the legal system, figuring out where to go and what to do once they get there.
"It's an economic survival issue for many of these people," said Luann Rocha, co-director of El Centrito De La Colonia.
"We see a lot of people who come through here who really need legal services," she said. "We see this as another way of trying to get people back on their feet."
Now that the clinic is open, the founders hope that more volunteers come forward to keep it running. Already, about half a dozen members of the Mexican-American Bar Assn. have volunteered. And Bozek has drafted people she knows, including her closest law school chum, Claire Lewis.
"I'm really confident that there are a lot of attorneys in the community who would be willing to do something like this," Lewis said. "You're helping people who need it, and I think you're helping yourself as well."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
The free legal clinic is held Wednesdays from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Oxnard law office of California Rural Legal Assistance, 445 S. B St. Clients must be low-income. No appointment is necessary. The clinic needs attorneys, paralegals and other volunteers. For more information, call 486-1068.