In 2004, JusticeCorps launched its pilot program in Los Angeles County, providing assistance to low-income litigants unable to afford legal representation. Since then, the program has expanded to the Bay Area, San Diego and – as of September 2010 – Sacramento.
Funded through AmeriCorps, JusticeCorps seeks to unburden some of California’s most active legal self-help centers by training student volunteers to guide litigants through the complex legal process.
“The reality of the circumstance is that there’s been an increase [in number of centers] in the last several years,” said Nicola Wood, the program coordinator for the Sacramento region. “Especially in family law, where one or more parties are self-represented because of the expense to hire an attorney and the belief that it’s a simple process, when it’s really a system built for lawyers.”
“Each court has a family law facilitator’s office where a family can get assistance and JusticeCorps is an extension of that,” Wood said. “Collectively, [JusticeCorps] preserves some of the court’s resources by helping to eliminate some of the repeat court appearances and clogging of the court.”
As interns in the legal offices, JusticeCorps members are not allowed to give clients legal advice. Instead, they assist clients mainly by helping them complete legal forms and assisting with legal workshops. On occasion, the interns go to court with clients to support them through the process.
“The court experience is invaluable,” said Emily Wang, a senior psychology and human development double major. “I really enjoy it because I get an intimate view of how things are. You see every aspect from the litigant coming in to file paperwork to the end of outcome with the decision of the judge. I don’t think a lot of people have that opportunity to see that.”
Wang is working at the Superior Court of California, Sacramento, one of four sites in the Sacramento program. Other sites include the Superior Court of California, for both Yolo County and Placer County, as well as the UC Davis Family Law Protection and Legal Assistance Clinic.
JusticeCorps members mainly assist in family law offices, helping litigants who are filing suit for issues such as domestic violence, custody and divorce.
Krystal Callaway Jaime is the supervising attorney at the UC Davis Family Law Clinic and said that the extra help from JusticeCorps has truly made a difference.
“Our office gets an average of two to three calls a day for people looking for assistance. [Having JusticeCorps] really helps us to respond to their calls quicker and give them better referrals. I know that it has really helped getting clients processed faster, and helping more people in a more organized manner,” Jaime said.
To complete the program, students have to do 300 hours of service over the course of the year, about eight to 10 hours per week. This also includes two or three weekend trainings, as well as the Martin Luther King Day of National Service. At the end of the program, members are awarded a $1,000 education award.
Senior English and international relations double major, Edgar Avalos, found an added benefit.
“I think what I’ve gotten most out of JusticeCorps is an actual feel for what the law field is and seeing the legal process and how much people have to go through to file something like a restraining order or for custody. There are so many steps and months and you get a real feel for the process,” Avalos said.
Since JusticeCorps’ inception, members have provided 194,600 instances of assistance in up to 24 different languages. The Sacramento program is currently accepting applications for the 2011-2012 year from UC Davis and Sacramento State University students. You do not need to be an aspiring lawyer to apply.
“Our target is not necessarily someone who wants to go to law school, but someone who has an interest in helping people. People who are more involved in service organizations and service-related majors are who we try to target the most, but also those that want to go to law school tend to gravitate toward the program,” Wood said.
Whether or not she decides to go to law school, Wang said that participating in JusticeCorps has definitely been worth the commitment.
“I feel that I’m truly making an impact,” she said. “People come in so distressed and just want to get their lives together or want protection for their children or family members. As soon as you help them you see this sign of relief and gratitude to know that there’s somebody who cares and that is helping them. I think that’s the greatest gift I can give – the gift of time.”
MELISSA FREEMAN can be reached at email@example.com.