Contra Costa County Family Law Pro Per Programs
I began helping to staff and organize programs for self-represented litigants over 15 years ago. At that time, there were increasing numbers of pro-per litigants and very few resources to assist them. Initially, the Family Law Section staffed two workshops a week giving classroom-type presentations on “starting your divorce,” “ending your divorce” and “how to file motions.” Over time, and post Elkins, the county expanded its services to the self-represented, not only in increased online resources, but in staff from the expanded Facilitator’s office beginning to conduct these programs at the courthouse.
Now, given that the number of self-represented litigants continues to grow (some estimates are as high as 70%)1 the Family Law Section has implemented new and different outreach programs to help pro pers and in turn assist the court. Currently, the Family Law Section staffs four programs:
- Finishing your Divorce clinic at the Family Law Courthouse
- A general information clinic held monthly at JFK Law School in Pleasant Hill
- Staffing of the “Double Pro Per Settlement Conference” calendar for each of the five Family Law departments
- A “Double Pro Per Settlement Conference Clinic” workshop held monthly at JFK Law School in Pleasant Hill
A. “Finishing your Divorce Clinic” at the Family Law Courthouse
The Finishing your Divorce clinic is held on the first and third Wednesday of each month at the Family Law Courthouse in Martinez. Self-represented litigants are referred to this program in two ways. They are referred by the Facilitator’s Office when they have completed their Declarations of Disclosure and need help putting the pieces of the Judgment together. They are also referred by each of the Family Law Departments if the parties have been to a Double Pro Per Settlement Conference and the volunteer attorney did not have time to complete all the Judgment documents.
B. General information clinic held monthly at JFK Law School in Pleasant Hill
The general information clinic at JFK Law School was originally set up by retired Commissioner Josanna Berkow who is a faculty member at the law school. It is designed to give procedural and informational direction to the self-represented at a central location in the evening to accommodate working litigants who cannot take time off during the day to see the Facilitators at the courthouse. It was also originally designed to give current law students a chance to interact face-to-face with clients and learn about resources available to assist them. It is held on the second Tuesday evening from 7-9 pm, 10 months of the year.
C. Staffing of the “Double Pro Per Settlement Conference”
Each of the five Family Law departments sets their self-represented litigants for settlement conferences on specific days set by the department to be “Double Pro Per Settlement Conference” days. On each of these dates, which is provided by the Department at the beginning of the year, a volunteer family law section attorney signs up to assist the court. The goal is to assist the parties to reach a full agreement and complete their Judgment paperwork that afternoon. Therese Bruce, current assistant to the Family Law Section, does a great job in helping to coordinate and fill these positions.
D. “Double Pro Per Settlement Conference Clinic” workshop held monthly at JFK Law School in Pleasant Hill
The “Double Pro Per Settlement Conference” Clinic is also held on the second Tuesday of the month from 7-9 pm at JFK Law School ten months of the year. Josanna Berkow originated the program to aid the Court in helping ensure the parties were prepared for their settlement conferences. It was also originally an “internship” type position for third-year law students who had already taken, or were currently enrolled in, a family law course. This program has been staffed and nurtured from the beginning by Selam Gezahegn, a dedicated and enthusiastic attorney and member of the Family Law Section. I can count on her to be present at every session. This program has been very successful and is very much appreciated by the Court. The parties complete a worksheet of all issues, noting which they agree on and which they don’t. They are also given a sheet to note all the “evidence” they need to bring to the settlement conference on the issues they don’t agree on. The worksheets are then sent in advance to the department so the Court has a copy in the file. A copy of the worksheet is also sent to each volunteer attorney for that date so they can be prepared for the couple and know how to focus their time. The result of these efforts is that most of the cases at the Double Pro Per Settlement Conferences do settle and it has helped with the Court’s calendaring of other trials. The number of court referrals to this program continues to grow each month.
I began assisting with the pro per programs as a way to help the court and the self-represented who were trying to maneuver their way through a confusing and paper intensive process. In general, I have found that the people helped through these volunteer programs are genuinely grateful and that in turn creates a good feeling in me. I think that helping the self-represented also helps the Court and the other attorneys at the same time because the entire system works a little better and a little quicker.
Divorce is an emotional time in anyone’s life and helping families through this in a positive way is very rewarding. I am often asked why I continue to do this work but the honest answer is that it is more joy than work. As in any situation where we give of ourselves in any way, we always gain more than we give. The real thanks for the success of these programs, as with those that preceded them, is the amazing generosity of the Family Law Section attorneys who month after month donate their time and experience to help the self-represented and the Court. Through their patience and kindness, one by one, the perception of the community at large views the entire legal system in a more positive light.