By Mireya Martinez
Through working with JusticeCorps and the Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County, Cal Poly Pomona students have been able to extend equal access to justice to local residents.
JusticeCorps is a legal self-help center that helps the self-represented litigant, who is someone that can’t afford an attorney or chooses not to hire one for a civil case, and instead represents him or herself in a court of law. However, the process can be convoluted.
“There are many people throughout the state of California who are representing themselves while trying to access the courts, and unfortunately they are going through the process blindly,” said JusticeCorps program coordinator Sheree Valdoria.
“[They] are making mistakes and have many barriers against them. The forms and legal procedures are created for judges and attorneys to understand, [so] it becomes a very overwhelming and daunting experience for them.”
Currently, JusticeCorps recruits over 270 members each year. CPP has partnered with the organization since its beginnings in 2004.
Students like Kyle Hofmeister, a senior majoring in political science, will be completing 300 hours of service at the Pomona court self-help center later this month.
“The legal language is very confusing sometimes and we help them with that,” said Hofmeister.
“I don’t give any legal advice; that’s not our scope, but I help them with all the paperwork and tell them all their legal options.”
The JusticeCorps gives student volunteers a true learn-by-doing experience.
“What we do on a daily basis is very practical and supplements what people are learning on campus, maybe indirectly or even directly,” said Valdoria.
“Some of the services that we do, members don’t get a chance to do in law school; they get to learn legal procedure in class, but they really don’t get any hands on experience with the public and the court system.”
While the program tends to attract CPP’s political science students, it is open to all majors and even graduate students.
Valdoria recalls an engineering student who believed in the program’s mission so much that he chose to participate twice before becoming a civil engineer.
“We are looking for people who have a passion to serve the community, and I would say all of our corps members have that passion,” said Valdoria.
Since the program does have an affiliation with AmeriCorps, known as the domestic Peace Corps, all students that complete the requirements of the undergraduate 300-hour or post-graduation 1,700-hour program receive an education award to help pay education expenses. Additionally, the members of the full-time post-graduation program receive a $20,000 living allowance.
The members recruited are trained and placed within local legal aid agencies, like NLSLA, which in turn oversee the service they provide.
NLSLA has been serving communities throughout Los Angeles for 50 years. The organization’s mission, similar to that of JusticeCorps, is to help residents gain equal access to the courts and the protections of the law through its 10 self-help legal access centers across the county.
“I think working for NLS is important work,” said Susana Arredondo, a full-time intern at NLSLA and CPP alumna.
Arredondo graduated from CPP in 2013 with a degree in sociology and an emphasis in criminology. She began and completed the JusticeCorps 300-hour summer program after graduation, contining to volunteer directly through NLS. In September 2014 she was hired through NLSLA full-time as the Gloria Molina Access to Justice Intern.
While Arredondo plans to go into law enforcement, she believes the experience she has gained working at the self-help center is invaluable, and she is grateful for all that she has learned from attorneys and NLSLA trainings.
“Pomona is my community and there [are] a lot of people that I would say are like me and like my family,”said Arredondo.
“They are low income. A lot of our litigants are Spanish-speaking only, and it’s nice to see the relief on people’s faces when they leave and they have a case resolved.”
NLSLA is constantly recruiting volunteers and interns. They have hosted information sessions at CPP and have had tables at volunteer fairs. JusticeCorps is also currently searching for members for next year.
“A lot of people get discouraged from volunteering because it is law, but honestly it is just a matter of learning. You learn, we will train you,” said Arredondo.
Hofmeister, who is attending law school in the fall, believes JusticeCorps was a life-changing experience.
“I would say it has helped me grow as a person,” said Hofmeister. “We don’t turn anyone away; [we] help everyone and that experience is what I like most.”
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