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.
The clinics focus on civil cases, with the biggest demand coming in divorce and child custody disputes where Dixon estimates more than 80 percent have at least one party representing themselves. More recently, Dixon said, she's seen more middle class filing legal papers.
"The litigants and the cases have shifted up the economic ladder," Dixon said. "We are even seeing people hiring a high-end attorney but they run out of money before the case concludes."
Al Schwartz, who runs a legal aid service in Chicago, said there has been an explosion of pro se litigants in that area over the past year. His group, Coordinated Advice and Referral Program for Legal Services, has helped more than 350,000 people since its inception in 1993 via a hotline and advice desks in courthouses.
"We target the cases that are a good match for pro se," Schwartz said. "Most clients have routine problems. But we also show them the pitfalls of doing this."
The learning curve for pro se litigants can be time-consuming and burdensome for judges and attorneys who square off against them. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Sheri Bluebond said she'll often give those representing themselves a break before sanctioning them. She also will spend time explaining her ruling so people don't feel they have been short-changed by the legal system.
"I try to make sure when people leave the courtroom they know what just happened to them," Bluebond said. "I certainly want them to feel it was a fair system. I don't want them to feel chewed up and spit out."
Not every civil case screened will go to a courtroom. At the clinic Butler attends in downtown Los Angeles, attorneys working pro bono first determine whether the case belongs in federal court, weed out frivolous claims and then give litigants tips on how to file paperwork.
The clinic opened in February and averages more than 120 people every month.
"The purpose of the clinic is to level the playing field and show that the justice system is open to everyone," said Lisa Jaskol, an attorney with Public Counsel, a firm that delivers free legal services and sponsors the clinic.
Nauen Rim, a civil justice fellow who recently graduated from Harvard Law School, said many of the people who she has helped at the clinic have gotten their legal cues from TV shows.
"A lot of people think it's like 'Judge Judy,'" Rim said. "They come here and find that's not how it works."
Comprehending the legal terminology and the process proved difficult at first for Butler.
"I didn't know where to start at," said Butler, who receives Section 8 housing assistance and is taking college courses to become a registered nurse. "It was rough."
The effort saved her at least several hundred dollars. Rather than paying an attorney, Butler's main legal costs have gone toward printing court documents.
In her lawsuit, she claims in April 2007 that housing authority officers searched her residence _ one had his gun drawn _ while she was taken away in handcuffs and detained for about 20 minutes. They left, not explaining their reasons for the intrusion, and she wasn't cited for any housing violation, she said.
The county's housing authority, named as one of the defendants in Butler's lawsuit, declined comment but noted that landlords must give tenants notice before entry.
For Butler, traveling 65 miles from her home in Palmdale to the courthouse is worthwhile. She said she's become more educated about the legal system and believes she has a good chance of winning her case, which is pending.
"That clinic is a blessing from God," Butler said. "What would happen to people like me if there wasn't this resource available? People would just run over you."