March 2011 • Vol. 31 No. 3 | An E-Publication of the Los Angeles County Bar Association

Small Claims Court Clinics Launched

LACBA co-administers collaborative effort to provide information, access to public.

Based on overwhelmingly positive feedback and the sheer number of individual requests for assistance, a collaborative effort among LACBA's AIDS Legal Services Project, Bet Tzedek Legal Services, the law firm of Greenberg Glusker, the Center for Civic Mediation, and Southwestern Law School has expanded its popular Small Claims Court Workshop into a clinical setting to provide more substantial one-on-one assistance to participants. Joining the collaboration are the law firms of Selman Breitman LLP and Locke Lord Bissell & Liddell LLP.

Designed to assist people who have filed, who are considering filing, or who are defending small claims actions, the new clinics—which are free of charge—debuted in January 2011 and reside on the Southwestern Law School campus on the second Thursday of each month.

"The clinics evolved from a workshop project that began development in 2009—in consultation with Los Angeles Superior Court's Small Claims Court—and was launched in May 2010," says Laurie Aronoff, project director, LACBA AIDS Legal Services Project. "There is no other community service program like this in all of Los Angeles County, and yet the need is huge. In downtown superior court alone, there are 1,200 filings each month, with 40 cases calendared each day. Many are dismissed because of problems with service or because the wrong party is named."

The clinics begin with a PowerPoint presentation from 6 to 7 p.m. Led by attorneys from Greenberg Glusker, the discussion also includes alternative means to resolving issues, with an overview of mediation and the services that the Center for Civic Mediation provides. After the presentation, participants interested in mediation can meet with the Center’s representative to perform an intake.

Participants who wish to pursue or defend against a small claims action meet one-on-one with trained law students from Southwestern Law School from 7 to 9 p.m. The students answer participants’ questions and provide additional assistance, such as drafting the complaint and fee waiver forms, or identifying the proper defendant in their specific case, and discussing how best to accomplish service of process. Attorneys from Selman Breitman and Locke Lord supervise the law students and also meet with participants during the consultations. Participants receive a disclosure, both orally and in writing, explaining that the clinic provides information only, not specific legal advice on their case, and that no attorney-client relationship is being formed.

"Working on the Small Claims Project has been a wonderful experience," says volunteer attorney Rachel Wilkes of Greenberg Glusker. "Despite being a litigator, I knew nothing about small claims court prior to this project, and I am now comfortable with all the ins and outs of the court procedures. There is a great need for this information, and we have gotten a positive response from the community. By expanding to the clinic format, we are now better able to prepare the litigants to go forward with their cases. I look forward to continuing to work on the project as it evolves."

Typically, attendees are litigants who have already filed a small claims action or are contemplating doing so. The types of claims they have vary greatly, including unpaid security deposit refunds and other landlord/tenant issues, consumer disputes, unpaid wages, and personal injuries.

"The program averages 20-25 attendees per evening representing a wide range of ages from early 20s to 70s and ethnically diverse," says Aronoff.

In addition, Greenberg Glusker developed numerous handouts for participants who want more information on particular topics—available online—that include filing a small claims action, serving the complaint, preparing for court, judgment and appeal, and collecting the judgment.

"Besides the personal satisfaction gained from assisting the community, attorney volunteers gain a real-world understanding of the practicalities of litigation and work closely with law students and small claims litigants in a time-limited format," says Aronoff. "With just a few hours of time each month, the pro bono attorneys can have a huge impact in assisting an individual through this process."

Commissioner Robert S. Harrison, who sits in Small Claims Court in downtown Los Angeles, concludes, “I’m seeing better evidence packages than when I started—when I never got them in order—so I think the workshops are starting to make a difference in the quality of the case presentation.”

Members of the public whose legal needs can best be met through Small Claims Court can be referred to the Small Claims Workshop and Clinic page at LACBA.org to find out more about signing up for a clinic and to download information.
 




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