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Centers give free legal help to do-it-yourself Southern Californians

March 14, 2009|Alicia Lozano

After getting served with divorce papers last month, James Thompson figured he needed some legal advice.

But when a private attorney he consulted wanted $350 an hour, the 43-year-old went looking for a more affordable solution. He found it at the Neighborhood Legal Services, a self-help legal center that opened a new office in the Pasadena courthouse Wednesday.

"Why would I need an attorney when they give me everything here?" he said, working on his case. "I'm taking my time, going very slowly, asking as many questions as I can."

As Thompson sat alone at a long white table shuffling through a daunting stack of papers, staffers circled the room, answering the occasional question or sitting down to review documents ready to be filed.

Founded in 1998, NLS has self-help centers throughout Southern California that provide free legal resources but not advice.

The organization's lawyers and volunteers don't represent a litigant in court, but they do help clients who are unfamiliar with legal processes to fill out paperwork and file it with the appropriate departments.

The centers also hold workshops for divorces, paternity issues, domestic violence, family law, evictions, declaration of disclosure and elder law.

"The need for legal help is growing because people don't have access, even people living above the poverty line," executive director Neal Dudovitz said.

The new Pasadena center is the organization's 10th location.

Even with offices scattered in Burbank, Glendale, Pomona and the San Fernando, San Gabriel, Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys, NLS centers are overflowing with litigants who can't afford attorneys and are in desperate need of legal guidance -- especially in the current economic climate.

"Sometimes people come in and they're so emotional," said Karla Zerehi, a junior at Cal Poly Pomona, who volunteers at the Pomona center once a week through the JusticeCorps program.

Just one day after the grand opening in Pasadena, people were lining up for help.

Hunched over dozens of documents, 24-year-old Felix Rocky penned his way through joint custody forms.

His ex-girlfriend doesn't allow him to visit his 7-year-old son, he said, and he's tired of fighting with her.

"Without help, this would be a real problem," he said of the lengthy legal process. "So far, I'm breezing through it."

"I think this is great," said his mother, Alicia Fierro. "For the future, can you imagine how much quicker this is going to go?"

Family law is an especially time-consuming legal area. About 75% of family law litigants do not retain lawyers, according to Dudovitz, leaving plenty of room for error when representing themselves.

"Judges get bogged down by all the explaining," Dudovitz said. "This increases the efficiency."

Centers offer help in several languages, including English, Spanish and Armenian. The Pasadena center specializes in helping Asian-Pacific Islander communities, which sometimes struggle with the justice system because their languages are not widely represented, said Carrey Wong, an NLS attorney who speaks Mandarin and Cantonese.

"Low-income Asians are not getting services in the same way other minorities do," she said. "None of the other centers have the abilities."

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alicia.lozano@latimes.com

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