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Local programs offer expeditious legal help despite court cuts

Last week’s announcement that the San Diego Superior Court will soon be forced to implement massive, historic cuts sent shock waves throughout the community. The idea of even more reductions and less resources for our already overburdened and underfunded judicial system is hard to contemplate. For those of us in the nonprofit legal services field, the concern regarding how these cuts will impact the underserved and most disadvantaged in our community is particularly acute.

Each year, the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program helps more than 5,000 very low-income San Diegans. Many come to us seeking immediate court-ordered relief in the form of temporary restraining orders. Many others seek assistance with complex family and probate court matters involving the welfare of children, which require multiple court hearings to resolve.

Further cuts to court services will surely affect our ability to provide responsive, effective services because of the reduction in court staff, ever-shorter business office hours, and the enormous caseloads of judges who are being stripped of the resources they need to expeditiously carry out their duties. Our clients’ cases will take much longer to make their way through the legal system, leaving lives hanging in limbo even longer. And it will perhaps exact an even greater cost — eroding confidence that the judicial system will indeed provide litigants with fair and just remedies.

One local legal pilot program provides expedited relief to participants in child custody cases, and yet, it is not currently operating at full capacity. Seven “Shriver Civil Counsel Projects” were launched in October 2011 in a few regions throughout California to target cases involving critical legal issues that affect basic human needs, such as housing, custody, conservatorship and guardianship.

In these kinds of disputes, low-income litigants are, for the most part, unrepresented and often unable to navigate the legal system on their own. Named after Sargent Shriver, each project is a partnership of a lead legal services nonprofit corporation, the court and other legal services providers in the community.

SDVLP was selected as the nonprofit organization to provide representation and administer the local Shriver Custody Project, in partnership with the court and Legal Aid Society of San Diego. It was designed to focus solely on child custody and visitation disputes with the intent of having these important matters handled quickly and effectively. This innovative program provides legal representation to low-income individuals who are offered several opportunities to resolve their custody disputes early on and in an expedited manner, rather than having to wait for protracted periods of time to have their matters heard on the regular family court calendar.

In family law cases, the majority of litigants are unrepresented, and it currently takes months to get a required mediation date and months more to get a hearing date. However, cases handled through the Shriver Custody Project can be heard in a matter of weeks. With an education component offered to parents alongside expedited mediation and hearing dates, this special process offers speedy, positive outcomes for families in distress.

In addition, it eases the burden on the court’s calendar, because otherwise similar cases get continued several times and can go on for many months. With the impending budget cuts that will eliminate critical court personnel, this program is needed more than ever. Fortunately, the Shriver Custody Project is currently scheduled to continue operating despite the looming cuts.

The program is a proven success and yet many who qualify to participate in it are not utilizing it. SDVLP and Legal Aid are eager to help as many individuals as possible who qualify for the Shriver Custody Project, but it is difficult to reach the very people who need these services the most because they are the most marginalized. But we hope that by educating the community, the Shriver Custody Project can be a bright spot in the otherwise dark future that faces the court system.

The Shriver Custody Project is just one of the many programs that SDVLP offers regarding family law matters. Another significant program that we have launched is the Safe and Secure Families Project, which helps victims of domestic violence get their lives back on track.

Through this program, low-income victims of domestic violence are provided legal representation in dissolutions, paternity actions, custody disputes, and child and spousal support matters. To qualify, an individual must be a resident of the city of San Diego. The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through the Community Development Block Grant Program.

As San Diegans brace for the court cuts planned for the next two fiscal years — as much as $54 million or even more — SDVLP pledges to continue to provide legal services for those most in need, and through such programs as the Shriver Custody Project, look for expedited solutions. With assistance from the community in terms of education, awareness, referrals and funding, SDVLP will remain committed to our mission of providing equal access to the justice system by serving the indigent and other disadvantaged people in San Diego County.

Fitzpatrick is the executive director of San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program Inc. For more information about SDVLP, including the multiple services offered and volunteer opportunities, visit sdvlp.org.

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