The 300,000 litigants who come to court each year without lawyers in Los Angeles County are about to get help from a unique group of college students dubbed the Justice Corps.
Those who want to handle their own divorces, custody battles, landlord-tenant disputes and other civil matters are likely to be assisted by a young volunteer from the corps of 100 eager, multicultural students who were welcomed recently into the program.
The Justice Corps is billed as the first of its kind in the nation and offers a chance for young people to learn by helping others through the maze of the court system.
Many of the volunteers, including aspiring lawyers, arrived with proud parents who took photos as their offspring promised to help others in the complicated task of using the justice system to their benefit.
The students, all undergraduates at four Southern California universities, are receiving 60 hours of training in legal matters that may confront them. They will join a court system that has 2,000 judges and 19,000 other court employees.
Superior Court Presiding Judge Robert A. Dukes said the idea for the program was born out of need.
"For years, people who came without representation were on their own," he said. "When they had forms filled out wrong we would say, 'Go away and try again.' "
Now, he said, they will have a student volunteer to lead them.
The program, funded by a federal AmeriCorps grant, provides each student who performs 300 hours of service in a year with a $1,000 educational award.
William Vickery, administrative director of the courts, whose office developed the idea along with court services analyst Martha Wright and a coalition of legal groups, said Los Angeles is a perfect testing ground for the program with its vast court system and a multicultural population.
"Many of our residents are faced with the harsh reality of not being able to pay for representation," he said. "And more than half speak a different language. Every day, we translate 220 languages."
Students will work out of self-help law clinics alongside volunteer lawyers who will monitor their work.
Dimitry Gozenpud, 26, a business law major at California State University at Northridge, said he speaks Russian and will help immigrants. He sees the program as a learning experience.
"This is something they don't teach you in law school," he said.
Carl Williams, 40, returned to Cal State Dominguez Hills after a long break in his studies and wants to become a youth counselor.
"I feel I'll be able to offer compassion," he said.