By: Veronica Henderson, Attorney
For many people seeking justice in our courts, nothing is scarier than walking into a courtroom alone. Having to face a judge who will decide your fate, as well as the opposing party who may not be happy to see you, can be terrifying. It is even worse when the opposing party has an attorney helping him or her. The reality is that many people cannot afford to hire an attorney, and thus must be self-represented in our courts of law.
Fortunately, you don’t have to go it alone if you are faced with this situation, because “self-help” or also commonly referred to as “access” centers are here to help. These centers provide free assistance to self-represented litigants, although the individuals who work in these centers do not represent the individuals in courts of law. Still, the help is invaluable.
Many people turn to self-help centers for assistance with their family law cases. These cases often require the preparation and filing of mandatory legal forms, some of which can be quite confusing and complicated. These forms also must be served on the opposing party, and how to do that “service of process” as well as the required timeframes for doing so are often not known by self-represented individuals. Of even greater complexity is the situation in which one party lives in the U.S., and the other lives across the border in Mexico. There are special requirements for serving process on individuals in Mexico, as mandated by the Hague Convention. One cannot simply have someone over the age of 18 walk across the border and hand the individual the paperwork. On the other hand, when both parties are in the U.S., the process is much simpler. The staff of self-help centers can assist with educating individuals about serving process in Mexico.
In addition to family law matters, self-help centers can also assist individuals with landlord-tenant issues, small claims, and probate guardianships. Each access center differs in the services they provide, so you must consult the center at the superior court located in the county in which you live to see what services are provided. Many centers, including the Self-Help Center in Imperial County Superior Court, offer services in both English and Spanish. Again, there is no fee for these services. A person just needs to make an appointment to speak to a staff member. Often, the self-help centers offer free clinics on certain topics such as how to file for divorce from start to finish so that multiple individuals can get the help they need and get their questions answered.
So next time you are faced with needing to go to court but cannot afford an attorney, make an appointment to speak to someone at the self-help center in your area. You just might feel a little less scared walking into that courtroom.