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Leaders praise JusticeCorps on program’s 10th birthday

By Amy Yarbrough
Staff Writer

A decade ago, when Los Angeles County Superior Court’s self-help centers were still fairly new, it was typical to see lines of people snaking out the doors.

Hoping to find some relief for overburdened staff, an attorney there teamed up with an Administrative Office of the Courts analyst to apply for financial backing for a program that has since recruited nearly 2,000 students and recent graduates to help California’s self-represented litigants.

JusticeCorps celebrated its tenth anniversary on May 16, receiving an Award for Exemplary Service and Leadership from Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye.

Kathleen Dixon, the Los Angeles court’s managing attorney of self-help programs who worked with the AOC’s Martha Wright to secure that first grant, said the award was particularly special because it honored both the program participants and its staff.

“It’s really gratifying to see the highest judicial officer in the state stop and recognize the value of the work,” she said.

A collaboration between the superior courts, college campuses and local community agencies, JusticeCorps’ work has no doubt been significant. Since its start in Los Angeles, the program has expanded to San Diego and Bay Area counties. There have been 1,989 graduates, participants have provided 617,000 instances of assistance in up to 24 languages, 561,000 legal documents have been filed and 634,600 hours of national service completed.

This year, more than 300 students participated in the program sponsored by the Judicial Counsel, serving about 28 court-based self-help centers in seven counties. And there have been discussions about expanding JusticeCorps to the Inland Empire in Southern California or to the Central Valley if funding will allow.

Wright, the AOC analyst, said the courts’ self-help centers were popular from the get-go and Los Angeles was chosen to launch the program because it was determined to have the greatest need.

“They opened the doors. There was no advertising, but month after month after month there were lines out the door,” Wright said.

“Really it was a matter of ‘We can’t have an army of other attorneys. What other strategies are there?’”

Universities were helpful and eager to “have a different type of opportunity available for their students,” she said. Participants, 70 percent of whom go on to law school, frequently describe their service as giving them useful and practical experience.

“I think that their experience in JusticeCorps informs the type of attorney they will be,” adds Dixon. “They develop a real social conscience. We know the experience they gain here is helping them.”

One graduate of the program has also gone on to become a police officer. One is now a clerk in family law in Los Angeles County Superior Court and aspires to be a court administrator.

“I think the thing that is really great about the program … is we retain about 90 percent of our members each year,” Wright said. “That’s a very high retention rate for a volunteer opportunity, an internship opportunity.”

The vast majority of JusticeCorps participants are undergraduate students who devote 300 hours a school year to the self-help centers. In exchange, they gain experience and a $1,200 education award to pay for their school expenses. There are also full-time members – 24 this year – many of whom are either pursuing or planning to pursue graduate degrees or law school. They serve 1,700 hours over the year and receive a $20,000 living allowance.

JusticeCorps members work under the supervision of a licensed attorney who trains and mentors them. The goal is not to serve as a document preparation service for the litigants, but to help them understand concepts and obtain the information they need to make decisions.

An added benefit has been that meeting with JusticeCorps members helps litigants to feel less stressed, Wright said.

“The level of anxiety is just tuned down 10 notches because they speak to someone, and they understand the process,” she said.

Court staff has also been less stressed, according to Dixon.

The program has gone a long way toward meeting the overwhelming demand in Los Angeles, which had 300,000 “incidents of service,” or contacts with litigants in its self-help centers last year.

“It’s been huge,” she said of the program’s impact. “It’s really increased our capacity to provide the kind of educational self-help that we do.”