Outreach Program Lifts Barriers to Legal System
Mobile clinics, translated documents and bilingual child care help ease the anxieties of Latinos intimidated by the courts.
By Anna Gorman
Times Staff Writer
Spanish speakers in Ventura County can hear radio tips about how to
handle traffic tickets and small claims cases. In Fresno County, they can
clinics on divorce and rental disputes. And throughout California, they can download child custody forms in Spanish.
Superior Courts around the state are working to make the justice system
more accessible by reaching out to Spanish speakers, many of whom do not
have lawyers or
any legal experience. Mobile law clinics, document translation and bilingual child care are among the new programs.
As a result, judges say, more Latinos solve their family and housing
disputes in court rather than on their front doorsteps. They feel less
intimidated, and they arrive in
court more knowledgeable about their rights and obligations.
"The Spanish-speaking community in California is enormous and growing
every day," said Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Teresa Sanchez-Gordon.
services tailored to them, Sanchez-Gordon said, there is mass confusion and desperation. Those who turn to the courts for help can leave frustrated and reluctant to
Sanchez-Gordon said the outreach effort helps meet the needs of the
Spanish-speaking community, which uses the courts frequently. "There is
much more that needs to
be done, but I think this is an excellent step," she said.
Nearly 40% of Californians speak a language other than English at home,
and for more than 1 in 4 Californians, that language is Spanish, according
to 2000 census data.
Immigrants' rights advocates say that access to information in a person's primary language is essential for navigating the legal system.
Even with the recent efforts, there are still gaps in services, said Willie Nguyen, an attorney with the Language Rights Project in San Francisco.
"The resources are oftentimes not there to address the needs of this
very diverse population," Nguyen said. "I really don't think that litigants
limited-English-proficient have a fair and equal opportunity to pursue their claims or defend the claims against them."
Providing equal access to the courts was one of the driving forces that
led the Judicial Council of California to start a Spanish self-help website,
Centro de Ayuda, in
July. The site, a mirror image of the English version, provides information about the courts, including how to find low-cost legal services, get a restraining order against
an abusive partner and obtain an order for child support. The site also links to other government agencies and nonprofit organizations.
The goal is to point people to the right place by using their own language
and icons that make the site easy to use, said Bonnie Hough, supervising
attorney with the
Judicial Council. Hough said the Spanish site doesn't receive as many hits as its English-language counterpart, but it provides a key service to those with limited English
skills and without legal representation. Internet users not only can access documents, they can receive instructions for completing them.
The site is an excellent tool for the Spanish-speaking community, said Sanchez-Gordon, because it simplifies the process.
The state courts have also developed Spanish-language videos on domestic violence and on the basics of court appearances, such as where to stand and what to wear.
Taking the outreach effort a step further, the Judicial Council provided
a three-year grant to Fresno County to open a self-help center that caters
to the needs of Spanish
speakers. Roughly 45% of Fresno County residents are Spanish-speaking, so the center has become a well-used resource center, said Sylvia Sorondo, community
"It's pretty much a one-stop place," she said. Latinos who speak limited English are "in disbelief that there is finally a place where they can go," Sorondo said.
The center, which opened in October 2002 and is staffed primarily by volunteers, receives about 150 visitors each day.
Most seek help with documents for family law cases, but visitors also
attend workshops on civil and probate cases. To meet the demand for services,
the Fresno center
is starting an internship program for paralegals.
In addition, the Centro de Recursos Legales, or Legal Resources Center,
offers volunteer interpreter services. Most of the volunteers are students
who are training to
be certified court interpreters.
The impact has been significant, Sorondo said. Judges have reported
a decrease in the number of continuances, because those without lawyers
come prepared. They
have filled out their documents correctly and have an interpreter at their side.
To get the word out about the new services, Fresno County court officials distribute literature and advertise in Spanish-language media.
Ventura County has also used the Spanish-language press to reach Latino
residents. Raquel Sandoval, a court processing clerk, said her parents
were field laborers and
frequently listened to the radio as they took breaks. She persuaded a Spanish-language radio station in Oxnard to air public-service announcements about the justice
Sandoval calls the station every weekday morning at 10:30 to share tips about maneuvering through the legal system.
In a recent tip of the day, she warned court visitors to arrive early
and allow extra time to pass through the metal detectors. She also provided
information about Ventura
County's self-help court center geared toward helping Spanish speakers, announcing when it is open and where it is located.
"A lot of people don't know even where to start when they have a problem," she said. "Even though it's something we cannot help them 100% … we can direct them."