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Self-help law center set to expand offerings

John DickeyKent VanDerSchuit (left), director of the Public Law Center, talks Tuesday with legal assistant Joan Connelley about a client's concerns.
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

A high-powered law firm it’s not.

The Public Law Center is not allowed to give legal advice, does not represent people in court, and can’t say whether its patrons are going to win their cases.



But the self-help law center in the Nevada County Superior Courthouse’s Suite 9 is helping a growing number of people make their way though the court system.




The number of people using the center is likely to increase even more once its takes over Small Claims Court advisory services starting March 1, expanding what are now part-time advisory services to 40 hours per week.

While the center doesn’t keep score, its director, Kent VanDerSchuit, said the center’s patrons are often successful.

He said some have gone up against their landlord’s attorneys and prevailed. The largest volume of the center’s customers are dealing with landlord-tenant disputes, often eviction notices filed as unlawful detainer actions.

“I’ll go in and watch the unlawful detainer trials, just to see how the tenants who have come to us use our services, how they’ve done in court, and I’ve seen several cases where tenants have gone up against attorneys here and have prevailed as a result of being knowledgeable of their rights, knowledgeable of the process,” said VanDerSchuit. “When they first came through the door, they had no idea what to do, where to go.”

In one case, a physically and mentally challenged man faced eviction from his publicly subsidized apartment. While they did not want to stay there permanently, he and his sister were able to get a few month’s reprieve to find another place.

And the losers? Well, some still feel better knowing they didn’t throw away their day in court, based on what they tell VanDerSchuit afterward.

“Even the people who lost, they’re OK with the idea because they understand what occurred,” said VanDerSchuit. “They understand why the decision went against them, and they were OK with it, rather than feeling like they were just beaten down by some wealthy attorney.”

The center provides information to help people make their way through the court system on their own. It stocks legal forms and guidebooks to handling issues, has a nearby library of law books and an Internet research kiosk, and holds free classes on legal issues. It also provides alternatives to court, such as mediation, which can be used in neighbor disputes.

When the center opened in March 2001, it assisted five people that month. Since then, the number of center users has shot up; 226 used the service in January.

An executive committee of judges and court personnel voted in December to fund the center permanently. Startup costs for last year totaled $100,000, including salaries and remodeling, which were funded by the state.

“It’s working; it’s providing a service to the public that everybody seems to like,” said Michael Glisson, the court’s assistant executive officer. “It’s helping our caseload. People going through court who have their paperwork right, who know what they’re doing, save a huge amount of time. “

On Tuesday, VanDerSchuit talked with seven people. A typical day, he said, it included a business trying to collect an outstanding debt, a malpractice case, an eviction, a construction defect case or other matters.

The self-help center came about after court officials saw that people without attorneys sometimes showed up unprepared for court hearings, taking up a “huge amount of time,” said Glisson.

The state Judicial Council also started asking courts in 1999-2000 to provide services like self-help centers to accommodate people who are not represented by attorneys, said VanDerSchuit.


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