Empowering Civil Litigants:  CCCBA’s Pro Per Civil Litigation Clinic

Empowering Civil Litigants: CCCBA’s Pro Per Civil Litigation Clinic

Representing yourself in court is not easy.  As much as we like to think of the court system as existing to serve litigants, the fact remains that navigating that system can be extraordinarily difficult without the knowledge and experience that an attorney brings to the task.

Often times, just the concept of having to identify, understand, and comply with a landscape of overlapping procedural rules like the Code of Civil Procedure, the California Rules of Court and local rules is foreign to lay persons thrust into the role of serving as their own attorney.  That can lead to mistakes and oversights in procedure that can severely prejudice the unrepresented party’s rights.  Then there is the matter of knowing how to prepare and present a substantive case in the courts.

As the United States Supreme Court emphasized in its landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright:  “Even the intelligent and educated layman has small and sometimes no skill in the science of law. … He is unfamiliar with the rules of evidence. Left without the aid of counsel, he may be put on trial without a proper charge, and convicted upon incompetent evidence, or evidence irrelevant to the issue or otherwise inadmissible. He lacks both the skill and knowledge adequately to prepare his defense, even though he has a perfect one. He requires the guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings against him.”  Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) 372 U.S. 335, 344-345, quoting Powell v. Alabama (1932) 287 U.S. 45, 68-69.  While the law has not guaranteed a right to counsel for civil litigants generally, the practical disadvantage of being unrepresented at issue in criminal cases like Gideon v. Wainwright is no less real for litigants facing having to represent themselves in civil litigation.

The Contra Costa County Bar Association’s Pro Per Civil Litigation Clinic is designed to try to help ameliorate some of that disadvantage.  Experienced civil litigators volunteer their time to try to help folks learn the basics of the court system and to acquaint themselves with the mechanisms of civil litigation.  In the clinic, we try to help litigants understand things like the function of the pleadings, the reasons for and use of discovery procedures, preparing a case for trial, and much more.  The clinics are held once a month at CCCBA’s main office. The clinics are often free form, nuts and bolts “how to” sessions.  While the attorney volunteers give only general advice on the litigation process, many times they often focus on the procedural posture of the cases being litigated by the attendees of a given session.  In other words, if several attendees find themselves in the midst of discovery matters, then much of that session might be spent talking about the discovery process and giving the attendees tips on things like properly preparing discovery requests or dealing with discovery motions.

The hope is that the clinic will serve to empower, even incrementally, civil litigants to more effectively navigate the court system and, hopefully, help them obtain a just and fair hearing of their cases.  As many of our  attorney volunteers can attest, the program has had a significant impact for many self-represented litigants:

Several years ago, I was sitting in Judge Austin’s courtroom waiting for a Case Management Conference.  Prior to my case being called there was a woman representing herself who was clearly not a native English speaker and was clearly confused (and argumentative) about what proof of service was acceptable to the Court.  Judge Austin was unfailingly polite and truly trying to help but the lady was adamant about her paperwork being correct (even when it was clear that it was not.)  This went on for a good ten minutes and I was thinking that there had to be a better way.

The Law Center offered to set up a clinic where the basic mechanisms of litigation would be taught as a group to whomever was going to represent themselves.  At first, we held it at the courthouse once a month whenever there was an empty courtroom available.  Eventually we moved to the Contra Costa County Bar Association offices in Concord, where volunteer attorneys would teach the basics of litigation to self-represented parties.  We gave materials and gave advice on matters such as how to fill out a Case Management Conference Statement and the important aspects of discovery.  Probably the most critical thing we teach is the importance of being on time with filings and the like.

I remember one elderly litigant who was having issues with her HOA over her delinquent payment of her Association dues.  It wound up in court because of all the late fees, interest, and legal fees that the Association tacked on to her bill.  She was sued and came to the class on the recommendation of the judge in the matter.  There was a motion pending the next week on having the Request for Admissions deemed admitted because she had not answered them in the proper manner.  She would of course have lost her case once the admissions were deemed admitted even though there were admissions that were not true and that she needed to deny.  After the class, she came up and asked what she could do.  I told her about both the Rutter Group books and the CEB books available in the law library in the courthouse and let her know that if she at least served her responses before the hearing she would have a chance to fight another day.  She did so and in the proper format and was able to settle the case once it became clear she was going to be able to maneuver through the procedural minefields.  She came to the next class I was teaching, brought cookies, and then told her story to the class assembled.

Self-represented litigants are people who are not necessarily self-represented because they want to be, they do not have the resources to hire counsel and are confused by the minutiae of what we, as lawyers, take for granted.  The Pro Per Clinic is about showing people representing themselves how to obtain justice where once before all they saw were obstacles.”   –Geoffrey Steele (Gizzi Reep Foley)

Although I have only volunteered at the Pro Per Clinic one time this year (so far), I was surprised by how appreciative the attendees were for having this clinic available to them for procedural questions such as serving pleadings/discovery or preparing Case Management Statements.  The clinic is general in nature, but the procedural guidance offered has the potential to reduce the time attorneys spend in court.  (How often have you witnessed a judge take the time to explain basic service of pleadings or discovery to pro per litigants?)  One of the attendees said to me that she has attended the clinic several times and each time she learned something new to help represent herself in the case.  She went on to say how she felt much more confident representing herself because of the resources and tools given to her at the clinic.  This clinic is an invaluable resource to the public by helping promote access to justice, but it also has the tangential and potential benefit of reducing the time attorneys spend in court for hearings such as Case Management Conferences.  I encourage attorneys to volunteer, even if it is only one time.” –S. Samantha Sepehr (George Schofield McCormick, LLP)

My parents are immigrants and the American legal system was a mystery to them.  I see that same sentiment when I teach the pro per clinic.  I continue to volunteer because it is rewarding to see the hope and relief in someone’s face when you explain the legal system and show them the way.” –Vahishta Falahati (Falahati Law APC)

If you may be interested in volunteering with the clinic, please contact the Contra Costa County Bar Association at (925) 686-6900.  The clinics are generally held the second Wednesday of each month.