As Californians navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, free legal aid provided by courthouse self-help centers across the state remained accessible thanks to advancements in remote technology made prior to March 2020.
A report to the Legislature prepared by the Judicial Council in January analyzes the impact of self-help centers and how an influx in funding helped Californians access critical resources and information during the pandemic. Critical services provided by these centers were, in large part, uninterrupted due to an additional $19.1 million provided in the Budget Act of 2018 to expand self-help services. The expanded funding is also included in this year’s budget proposal.
Services provided by self-help centers aim to help Californians without legal representation navigate the court system. Though the centers do not offer legal advice, staff can explain legal processes and help court users correctly fill out and file required forms and other legal paperwork.
Following the governor’s emergency COVID-19 order on March 4, 2020, courthouses faced closure and staff began drafting emergency protocol. During that time, 33 centers in courthouses in 58 counties were able to stay open or offer remote assistance within one week of the declaration, according to the January report.
“One day after the Judicial Council received the governor’s emergency authority, we acted to approve temporary emergency measures to continue essential court services while protecting the health and safety of our court family, all court users, and to encourage the greater use of technology for remote proceedings and operations for as many types of court transactions as we could,” Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said at the March 12 Judicial Council meeting.
By the end of June 2020, all centers offered remote services, while nearly half were able to accommodate in-person visits. Court users were also able to access services via the phone, online chat and videoconference.
“Remote services allowed self-help centers to rapidly respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and, after only three months, return to serving nearly the same number of customers per month that they had been serving in the month before the shutdown,” said Bonnie Hough, principal managing attorney for the Center for Families, Children and the Courts.
Within the first two years following the 2018 funding expansion, California’s self-help centers doubled attorney and professional staff, 46 percent of whom spoke a second language.
The courts also added 14 self-help centers, bringing the statewide total to 135.
Of that total, 18 centers added Spanish-language services or expanded existing language resources.
Overall, California’s self-help centers helped more than one million court users in 2019 alone. Staff members were also able to help Californians in nearly 180 languages and dialects, the data showed.
In addition to the positive impact on members of the public, self-help centers have also benefitted judges and had a substantial effect on court operations.
“Self-help centers ensure that the legal paperwork is legible, accurate, and complete, and help ensure that litigants address the issues that the judge will be looking for,” Hough said.
A pilot program for self-help centers in California first began in the 1990s and has grown in the years since, eventually expanding services to every California court.
In the future, the courts look to expand remote legal assistance as a basic service, rather than something used in times of crisis like the pandemic.