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Sonoma County's Free Legal Services 

May 24, 2017
by Debra Newby, Newby Law

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DEAR READERS: Do you have a legal question on your mind? If so, please email me at debra@newbylawoffice.com. Your name will remain confidential. This Q & A Legal Column is intended as a community service to discuss general legal principles and does not create an attorney-client relationship.

[Note to Readers:In lieu of my typical “Q & A” monthly column, I’d like to present a three-part series on the wide array of free legal services offered to the public through our local court system and community-based programs, and staffed in part by law students. Be informed. Share with others. Enjoy.].

Justice. The word itself conjures up images of a fair and truthful world. A world governed by principles that can be trusted; a system propelled by the input of the “common man” as he or she sits in one of the most powerful seats in the courtroom – the Jury Box. But what happens if access to Justice depends on the financial worth of the accused or harmed? Does a rich man gain “better access” to the courts? Can a poor man get a fair shake at what is due?

Deep rhetorical questions – fodder for a jurisprudence class – yet the inquiry morphs into a real problem for the single mom who just received an eviction notice or the senior citizen who has no estate plan. Not everyone who has a pressing legal issue can afford a private attorney. A vacuum is then created, and without local resources and a safety net, that single mom and/or our deserving senior falls through the cracks. Without Justice for All, there is No Justice.

So…what to do? Well, the Sonoma County Superior Court, in conjunction with Empire College – School of Lawand community-based legal assistance programs (like Legal Aid of Sonoma County) has created no less than six free legal clinics. The basic structure works something like this: The law student (who must be a 3rd year law student—i.e. the last year of law school) registers for one of the six clinics for credit (up to three units) toward their law degree. The student gains invaluable “lawyering skills” (listening, client interviewing skills, problem-solving skills, etc.) under the supervision of a licensed and practicing attorney. The prospective client receives clarity. 

Mike Mullins, Dean of Empire College – School of Law for the past three years and our former District Attorney of Sonoma County, intuitively understands the value of the legal clinics – both to the law student and to the prospective client. “Our legal clinics serve as a type of clearinghouse for the individual”, comments Dean Mullins. “There is nothing worse than facing some type of problem that looks like a legal problem that you can’t do anything about. But, if you could just at least talk to a lawyer, a key question may be answered – do I need a lawyer or not?” 

Last month’s column profiled the Small Claims Clinic at Empire School of Law, a popular clinic that helps litigants prepare for small claims court, an ideal venue for disputes valued at $ 10,000 or less. The other five legal clinics generally address the following areas of civil law:

1) Family Law;

2) Immigration Law;

3) Elder Law;

4) Disability Law; and

5) Areas covered by Legal Aid (Restraining Orders, Domestic Violence, Evictions, and Guardianships).

Let’s just look at the Family Law Clinic for now (I will address Immigration and Elder Law in July’s column, followed by Disability Law and areas covered by Legal Aid in my August column).

“I know the courts are appreciative of our law students helping out at the Family Law Self Help Center because 80% of our family court litigants represent themselves”, states Dean Mullins. The law student can help the litigant with issues such as child support, visitation, divorce, spousal support, parentage, and guardianship – guiding them toward the appropriate forms they will need. 

The location of the Family Law Facilitator is premium real estate – located in the Family Law Courthouse at 3055 Cleveland Avenue in Santa Rosa. The clinic predominately operates on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings from 8:00 am to 11:30 am. Afternoon hours are available on Mondays. Call 707-521-6545 or visit the court’s website at www.sonoma.courts.ca.gov.

Stay tuned for next month’s column – Part Two of Three: Immigration and Elder Law Clinics, also staffed by the remarkable students at Empire College – School of Law.

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