Access to Justice Series: Introduction by Mark Johannessen
A core aspect of the Santa Cruz County Bar Association’s mission is to promote meaningful access to justice for all persons. People encountering life challenges should have access to resources to help them understand their rights under the law, how protect those rights and obtain a fair outcome, and know that the result will be enforced under the law.
During this year in this newsletter each of the members of the board of directors of the Bar Association will briefly write about what access to justice means in their areas of practice. I will start this conversation with my area of practice – family law.
In 2021 there were over 1,500 family law related actions filed in this county, including domestic violence, elder abuse, marriage dissolutions and other family law matters. In the last 12 months, the county, through its Self Help Center in Watsonville and the law library, provided help to over 1,100 self-represented family law litigants every month.
Most litigants in family law do not have attorney representation, and the main reason for that is the lack of funds to hire an attorney. The volume of help provided by the Self-Help Center is an indication of the complexity of the law and court processes faced by self-represented litigants.
Not being aware of court processes and the law can result in self-represented litigants failing to express and present their issues and facts to the court in a way that addresses their concerns in a legal context, to rebut claims made by the opposing party, or failing to comply with state and local rules which prevents their issues to even be heard, such as a failure to properly serve the other party with moving papers and other pleadings.
In family law, this can lead to significant long-term problems arising from restraining orders being issued (for the defending party) or not (for the requesting party), child support orders being made or not, and custody and property division orders based on unchallenged facts or lack of knowledge of rights and obligations, many with lasting effect. In addition, the lack of proper presentation of facts and law places the judicial officer in a position to attempt to make sense out of whatever facts and arguments the litigants can present to the court and then to try to achieve a fair outcome.
Even if a self-represented litigant can afford some amount for legal representation, he or she can face difficulties in finding an attorney to help. The Lawyer Referral Service of the Bar Association (LRS) provides referrals to local attorneys in a variety of practice areas, with calls for family law and landlord/tenant issues being the top referral requests. The LRS continues to need more attorney panelists to accept referrals from the Watsonville Self Help Center and other organizations and through the LRS website – particularly in the areas of debt collection and landlord/tenant. The LRS also needs more Spanish speaking attorneys. Becoming involved with the LRS is an important way for members of the local bar to help support access to justice to community members.
For those attorneys who would like more information on the LRS, please see https://www.santacruzbar.org/lawyer-referral-service/ or contact the Bar Association’s Executive Director, Lori King, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Currently, there are no fees for Santa Cruz County Bar Association members to sign up.