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August 27, 2014

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Courts’ self-help center has aided 55,000 people

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Chris Morris / Special to the Sun

Civil Law Self-Help Center at RJC

People fill out paperwork at the Civil Law Self Help Center in the Regional Justice Center Thursday, July 28, 2011. Launch slideshow »

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A middle-aged Las Vegas salesman who lives in an apartment was served a five-day eviction notice he insists is “totally bogus” because he pays his rent on time. He showed up at Las Vegas Justice Court after the eviction was to take effect. That was because the notice was initially sent to the wrong apartment, something he thinks the landlord did on purpose.

The angry tenant spoke with a court clerk at the Regional Justice Center and was directed downstairs, where off to one side of the main lobby is what is fast becoming one of the most popular spots in the courthouse — the Civil Law Self-Help Center.

The free center helped complete the forms the man needed to challenge the eviction notice without an attorney.

“There was no line, no wait, that was the biggest surprise of all,” said the man, who requested anonymity. “I was very apprehensive coming in, seeing if I could get the right help. The amount of help I received was overwhelming.”

Such testimonials are piling up at the center, which opened in December 2009 to help relieve court clerks who cannot provide legal advice and judges who don’t have time to deal with individuals trying to represent themselves without knowing what they’re doing. The center doesn’t provide legal advice, but it has assisted more than 55,000 customers through June, either by teaching them to represent themselves in matters such as small claims and credit card debt disputes or by referring them to attorneys who will serve for free or based on their ability to pay.

One of its fans is District Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez, the court’s presiding judge in civil cases.

“The biggest problem with people who represent themselves is they don’t know what to expect,” Gonzalez said. When such people have sought the center’s help, they have a better chance to come to court prepared so that “the judge can make intelligent decisions,” she said.

“The traffic through that center is much better than I anticipated, and I’m impressed with how the staff has handled it,” she said.

The center, whose staff includes directing attorney James Berchtold and five legal assistants, is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. It is run by the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada on an annual contract with Clark County. The contract pays the Legal Aid Center $302,000, but it has to raise $81,000 privately to cover the costs of the self-help center.

Besides forms that users need to participate in Justice Court or District Court, the center offers free, private 15-minute sessions with attorneys every Wednesday to discuss landlord/tenant issues, and private 30-minute interviews with lawyers on the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month to address foreclosure mediation concerns.

Berchtold is particularly enthusiastic about a staff assistant designated to handle customers who have received home mortgage default notices and are thinking about opting for the Foreclosure Mediation Program run by the Nevada Supreme Court. That position is filled by Adam Tully, who will enter UNLV’s Boyd Law School this fall.

Tully estimated that more than half of the people he helps have at least one adult in the household who is unemployed. Almost all bought homes within the past decade and are victims of a collapsed housing market that has led to record foreclosure rates in Southern Nevada. Many are upset because they say they have tried to work with their lenders, only to be put on hold when they call, and then working with different customer representatives once they get through. Tully also fields complaints from individuals who say the lenders have messed up the mortgage paperwork out of “willful incompetence.”

“What surprised me is how many people have been at it for so long, working on modifications for months, years,” Tully said. “By the time they come in for mediation many times they’re resigned about it. They know it’s a pain.”

Noteworthy is that 44.4 percent of the individuals who have completed surveys said they visited the center to help resolve landlord/tenant disputes. The next most common reasons are small claims (9.4 percent), consumers debts or loans (8.9 percent), harassment or protection orders (7 percent), court appeals (6.4 percent) and homeowner foreclosures or evictions (5.1 percent).

The large number of inquiries about landlord/tenant disputes surprised Berchtold, who figured other issues related to consumer debt would be most in demand.

“Times are tough and people are having a hard time paying their rent,” Berchtold said. “Their unemployment is running out and they’re hanging by a thread. Landlords who bought an investment property are dependent on that rent to make a payment on the property but that’s not happening. So the landlords are getting desperate, the tenants are getting desperate, So everybody’s getting desperate. They’re coming in to seek information about the eviction process. The eviction process is set up so that people can represent themselves in court.”

That’s one of the oddities of the self-help center. A tenant facing eviction and a landlord seeking eviction in an unrelated case can stand elbow to elbow at the center’s counters poring through documents they need to complete or seeking help from staff. That’s what Las Vegas fourplex landlord Alfred Myers, 79, was doing the day the angry tenant was there.

“Me and my wife, we know other people who are landlords and they always hire out their eviction work, and we tell them they’re crazy,” Myers said. “You can do it yourself in just a little bit of time. When they put this center in, it was the greatest thing they did.”

Although the center is available to anyone, nearly three-quarters of the users earn less than $30,000 annually.

“It is tough for anyone who is low income to afford an attorney,” Berchtold said. “That’s really who the center targets, anyone who can’t afford an attorney but is forced to go through the court process on their own. But we also have people in here doing a small-claims case who are making $100,000.”

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