Christopher Bartlett began the fight for custody of his 5-year-old son without a job and without a lawyer.
The court process was neither short nor easy, and the 28-year-old wasn’t always clear about the next legal step to take.
But then he was introduced to students in blue shirts who work in local courthouses ““ members of the volunteer organization JusticeCorps.
Bartlett said the student volunteers have been on his side since the day they met him. With their help, he has lowered his child support payments and is now fighting for custody of his son.
Bartlett is one of 40,000 people each year in the Los Angeles region helped by JusticeCorps, an organization that recruits student volunteers to help people who must represent themselves because they cannot afford attorneys ““ a term commonly referred to as “self-help.”
The Los Angeles program spans six college campuses, including UCLA, USC, Cal State Northridge and Cal State Long Beach.
The group has numerous locations across the state, but the Los Angeles division started it all 8 years ago.
While working for the organization last year, Erik Pena, a fourth-year history and political science student, said he remembers helping a woman who came into the office crying because of difficulties with her landlord and a security deposit. She did not have faith in the court system, Pena said.
He sat down with her for two hours and explained step-by-step how to get started, he said.
“When I told her this was a free service, she was so grateful for everything,” Pena said. He never saw her again, but he said he hopes she won her case.
Members are not allowed to follow up on cases unless clients call, because it would be viewed as illegally providing “legal advice,” Pena said. He said, however, it is rewarding to know that people walk away with a more positive perspective of the legal system.
Pena said he does not intend to apply to law school but wants to pursue a career in government helping people. JusticeCorps, he said, gave him a more hands-on experience.
He now works as a UCLA campus representative for JusticeCorps. Having completed the regular program last year, Pena currently helps organize UCLA JusticeCorps members, checking in on their hours as well how they are doing emotionally, because the job can be stressful at times.
Rita Mansuryan, a second-year political science and English student who volunteers in Van Nuys, said it can be difficult to fight the desire to go above and beyond to help a litigant.
In one instance, she assisted a woman who was representing herself in a dispute between herself and her husband, who had a lawyer. The woman, who could not speak English, unknowingly signed papers giving up custody, Mansuryan said.
“We are told to comfort (litigants) as much as possible, but to focus on the paperwork,” she said. “We are limited by our status as volunteers.”
She said she was glad that she could help the woman by speaking to her in her language, Armenian.
UCLA students make up about half of the local JusticeCorps membership, said Kathy O’Byrne, director of the UCLA Center for Community Learning.
Often minoring in civic engagement, these students commit to 60 hours of formal training and 300 hours of service in local courts.
Before JusticeCorps, self-help in Los Angeles courts relied mostly on short-term or inconsistent volunteer hours, said Jennifer Kalish, the JusticeCorps program director.
Hundreds of thousands of litigants each year would have to represent themselves, but would do so poorly because they did not understand the court system, Kalish said.
The court system can be confusing and potentially frustrating, O’Byrne said.
So the six campuses petitioned to AmeriCorps, a government program that sponsors hands-on public service, arguing that dedicated college students could be the answer to improving self-help services, O’Byrne said. In addition to receiving funding from AmeriCorps, JusticeCorps works with local legal aid services.
In 2004, it received approval from AmeriCorps, and JusticeCorps began operating.
Recruitment begins each year in the winter, and the selection process is finished before summer, O’Byrne said. The program starts in the fall, although there is a summer program.
Access to JusticeCorps is as easy as making an appointment, Bartlett said.
“I must have thanked (JusticeCorps members) about five times today,” Bartlett said. “If I could, I’d write a letter, but I don’t know who I’d send it to ““ you don’t get this kind of service for free everywhere.”