By Greg Risling, Associated Press Writer
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Zina Butler didn't know where to turn when county housing officers, sheriff's deputies and her landlord allegedly barged into her subsidized apartment without notice two years ago.
Butler, 46, wanted to file a lawsuit that claimed her Fourth Amendment rights, which guard her from illegal searches and seizures, were violated.
Unable to afford an attorney and terrified of navigating the legal system on her own, Butler found a clinic at a federal courthouse in Los Angeles offering guidance to people who want to represent themselves in court.
The need for legal help across the nation has soared over the past year, mostly due to foreclosures, bankruptcies and other recession-related ordeals. Court workers say more people are doing their own legal work — a term known as pro se — instead of hiring lawyers, who can charge hundreds of dollars an hour.
While the prospects of representing oneself — much less winning a case — seem daunting, many legal novices are willing to take that chance.
"Pro se parties are now a permanent feature to our legal system and their numbers are growing," said Jim Hilbert, executive director for the William Mitchell College of Law's Center for Negotiation and Justice in St. Paul, Minn. The school opened its own pro se clinic in September. "While it would be great to give them all lawyers, we know it's not possible."In Butler's case, she has sued the Housing Authority of the County of Los Angeles, the property management group that owns the apartment complex and several others. Citing emotional distress, Butler is seeking $250,000 and claims she still does not know why her apartment was searched.
In Los Angeles County, home to one of the largest caseloads in the United States, resources are stretched thin. There are more than a dozen self-help centers throughout the county, and there are about 1,000 people seeking help daily, said Kathleen Dixon, a managing resource attorney for the Los Angeles Superior Court.