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Aid is in their corner for legal fight

In eviction cases, renters who face a lawyer but don't have their own can turn to self-help centers.

December 28, 2006|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

Roxanne Velasquez said she was feeding her 1-year-old son, Evan, and chuckling at the little dabs of food smeared across his face when a knock on the door interrupted dinner.

It was a man from the court with an eviction notice.

The next day, she and her boyfriend, Edgar Rodriguez, walked into the Van Nuys Self-Help Legal Access Center. If they had any hope of staying in their apartment, they would have to file a response to their landlord within days. They had been referred to the center, which is paid for by grants and public funds.

One fall day, dozens of people -- some red-eyed from crying, others rigid with anxiety, some downright jubilant -- had crowded into the center, a run-down trailer behind the courthouse, in search of legal help.

Poor people who are accused of crimes get lawyers for free. But tens of thousands of people each year in Los Angeles County who face eviction from their homes but can't pay for a lawyer have a stark choice: Lose, or try as best they can to navigate a system populated by highly trained, suit-wearing, jargon-speaking experts. In a state where up to 90% of people threatened with eviction and as many as 80% who want a divorce make their way through the court system without a lawyer, the state's judicial system has decided it must help. One answer has been self-help centers. Six have opened in Los Angeles County over the last few years, with four more added this year and one planned for early next year, a total of 11.

"We are trying to cope with this," said the chief justice of California's Supreme Court, Ronald M. George. The huge number of people without lawyers, he said, poses "one of the greatest challenges ... for the legal system in the forthcoming decade."

There aren't enough legal aid lawyers in the state to make a dent in the problem. There is one lawyer for about every 240 people in California, but according to Assemblyman Dave Jones (D-Sacramento), who heads the Assembly's Judiciary Committee, when it comes to serving poor people, there is one lawyer for every 8,373 residents. And the reality is actually worse, Jones said, because many middle-class people can't afford lawyers either. The Los Angeles County Bar Assn. estimated that the average rate for a lawyer ranges from about $175 to $300 per hour.

Advocates say that puts tenants at a disadvantage -- landlords often hire lawyers.

It also puts a burden on the courts, which get stuck helping people negotiate their cases when those people have little understanding of the law and may not speak English well. Many people don't know where to turn: One day in the Van Nuys courthouse, one man even buttonholed a sheriff's deputy for advice.

Without actually representing people, lawyers and paralegals at the centers help them fill out paperwork to fight an eviction or process a divorce. At some centers, they might try to find a volunteer lawyer to take an egregious eviction case.

But for the most part, they hand out pamphlets with titles such as "How to Prepare: First Step of a Divorce With Kids." They tell people to dress nicely when they go to court and try to find translators when needed. They tell them to bring any evidence to court, too.

Velasquez and Rodriguez, with bright-eyed Evan in tow, walked in on a warm October afternoon.

The first person they encountered was Norma Valencia. Valencia's job title is paralegal/intake screener, but she is known as the triage person.

In rapid-fire conversations that switch between English and Spanish, Valencia evaluates each case. At Van Nuys, the office handles only evictions and divorces; no contract disputes, no lawsuits, no small claims.

"My husband drinks all the time," one woman said. Valencia has heard this one so many times, she barely blinked. "Are there minor children?"

"The youngest is 30," the woman said. Valencia nodded, and handed over a guide to divorce papers.

Next?

A couple approached, looking delighted, as though about to pick up free airline tickets to a tropical island. The man said he was seeking a divorce. The woman smiled at Valencia. "I'm the wife," she said. "We're friends. Don't worry."

They got paperwork, too.

The trailer, once a temporary courtroom, is divided in the center. On one side are tables where attorneys and paralegals help people. The other side is a waiting area -- and it's often teeming.

More than 53,000 eviction cases were filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court in the year ending June 30.

Twenty-four hours after a missed payment, a landlord can give tenants a three-day notice, the first formal step toward eviction. If the tenants do not pay within three days, the landlord can give them an eviction notice --regardless of whether they then come up with the money.

Once served, tenants can move or fight. To fight, they file an answer with the court and then argue their case before a judge.

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