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Self-represented People of Color in Family Court

Low income people of color do not have the opportunities to suitably represent themselves in the court room. From my own experiences volunteering at a court’s self help center, I’ve seen the burden that self-represented people of color have to endure when dealing with family court cases.

There are free resources available to obtain legal help, which are primarily used by people of color, but these resources are scarce. If you don’t have access to services within the judicial/court system, you do not have the opportunity to represent yourself the best possible way.

Many of the people who require assistance do not speak English but are referred to legal services that are in English. This language barrier is not limited to the courtroom; the need for language assistance extends to all areas of the legal system. The paperwork needs to be filled out in English and in trial the judge communicates in English. There is paperwork that is translated in other languages, like Spanish, however the legal terminology is not easy to understand. This system was not built so that an average person could maneuver it, especially someone who only received primary schooling, like many of the litigants. Additionally, there are difficulties in communication because, many of the people of color that come in cannot write or read. Yet they are expected to engage in civil litigation regarding matters that are often legally and factually complex, such as child custody, child and spousal support, and property division.

How are people supposed to be self-represented if they cannot communicate effectively with the court?

Many litigants who try to receive services at free service centers are there because a friend or family member referred them about the center, not the court. Still, when a case gets complicated it is difficult for people to attain free legal help and much of it needs to be dealt with by attorneys. Attorneys are expensive and there are few who offer services at low cost, which means that one way or another you still have to pay.

Self-represented individuals are often dealing with emotional and financial stress and further issues but they have no other choice than to represent themselves The majority of people of color who need free legal services are being affected by other racial structural issues. Some people need free services because they do not have jobs. Some people do not have jobs because they are undocumented and cannot get hired. Some people do not have money to pay because they just got out of jail or prison.

Furthermore, many legal self help centers are composed of volunteers, this is an issue because some of them are low income too. This is essentially reproducing the same system of oppression and poverty. The argument can be made that volunteer services are nearly putting a bandaid over a very big wound and do not serve as a long term solution. Courts need to invest in or be given the funding to hire actual workers to do the job that volunteers are doing of assisting self represented people of color. This will also increase the number of people that are being assisted. Because services are not often provided by lawyers many people are more likely to lose claims and pay for stuff they could have avoided with a lawyer at their side.

Additionally, people who are already struggling to pay fees have to take time off their jobs to go to a center to receive assistance.

These are reasons to why there is so much distrust for this legal system. Some people rather avoid going to court to fight for custody/visitation than be in an environment that makes them feel uncomfortable and unsafe. This is not equal justice and we cannot call this a “justice” system if people do not have accessibility to the same representation.