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County provides free family law assistance

Thursday, January 10, 2008

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County provides free family law assistance

Published: January 4, 2008

This time of year, not everything you receive is a gift. You might receive a divorce petition.

The question is, what do you do with it?

Unless you work in the legal profession or have legal representation, you may be clueless about how to deal with it.

That is not unusual, according to Eric Du Temple, Tuolumne County Superior Court presiding judge.

"A petition is served on them. What do I do, is usually the first reaction," he said.

Without legal representation, it's easy to get confused about what is required, according to Suzanne Morlock, a family law facilitator who provides free assistance to any unrepresented individual seeking help with family law issues.

The Tuolumne County Legal Resource and Self-Help Center at 39 N. Washington St. in Sonora provides help to county residents in the following areas: dissolution of marriage, legal separations, annulments, establishing paternity, custody/visitation, child support, grandparent rights, domestic violence restraining orders, adoptions, and emancipation.

"Legal aid does not have a presence in this county," Morlock said. "We have met with Central California Legal Services in Fresno. They don't do any family law."

Although Morlock is an attorney, she does not represent anyone in court, but she does "help them get through the system," said Du Temple. Morlock calls those with whom she works, "customers," not clients.

"The court process can be very intimidating," said Richard Feldstein, court executive officer.

The advantage for everyone is that if customers are aware of the self-help center they can appear prepared before the court.

"If a litigant can come before the court and the case does not have to be continued, it's a very valuable service," Feldstein said.

"Emotions run high (in court) and not knowing what to expect just exacerbates the problem when people have no idea what is happening," said Du Temple.

Those representing themselves in the courts slow the legal process. "It was choking the courts, especially on the family law calendars. It was gridlock," Morlock said. "The concept of self-help centers was a way to address this."

As a result, the state of California provided seed money to all county courts to establish a self-help center. It was not mandatory that a county accept the funds.

Because people who can use the service generally are not aware of it, the center receives most of its customers through referrals from court clerks who send customers across the street from the courthouse.

Self-help centers were first funded in 2002. Morlock helped establish one of the first five pilot centers in the state to serve Butte, Glenn and Tehama counties. Morlock noted that each of the five pilot locations took a different piece of responsibility. Fresno did a Spanish-language component, Contra Costa, a Web based information system; San Francisco, a multi-lingual translating component; and Los Angeles County worked on a means for nonprofit organizations to coordinate and communicate with the courts.

According to Morlock, it was "serendipitous" that she came to Tuolumne County. She had completed her work in Butte, Glenn and Tehama counties' pilot self-help center and she heard there was an opening to begin a self-help center in Tuolumne County.

"I couldn't say no," Morlock said, even though it requires her to commute from Chico. She began work in Tuolumne County, on an interim basis, nearly a year ago. The court has been advertising for an attorney to assume responsibility for the self-help center, but, according to Du Temple, the search has yet to be successful.

Customers who visit, or are referred to the center have an array of resources. "We give them lists and checklists - little road maps every step of the way," Morlock said. "We try to give them what to expect in court, what they need to do." She cannot go to court with them.

In addition, she holds workshops for people contemplating divorce and wanting to establish paternity. Workshops are between 5 and 8 p.m. at the self-help center.

"It's an empowering thing to the customer so they can finish their cases so they can get closure," Morlock said.

Last week, the court received a grant from the state bar association to add services to the self-help center. The services include Webex, interactive computer assistance and teleconferencing to guide customers on how to properly complete paperwork, she added. It would allow those who live in more rural areas to perhaps go to a public library and receive guidance electronically. Webex sites have yet to be determined, according to Feldstein.

There are no income guidelines for using the self-help center. Anyone not represented by an attorney may visit the center.


For those wishing to represent themselves in the court system or needing assistance with family-law issues, contact the Tuolumne County Legal Resource and Self-Help Center, 39, N. Washington St., Suite F, Sonora. For an appointment, call 536-2984. Hours are 8 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays. The center provides free legal assistance (not advice) in the following areas of law:

Family Law


Legal separation

Nullity of marriage

Summary dissolution

Establishing paternity

Petition for custody and support

Domestic violence restraining orders and responses

Step parent adoption

Establishing or modifying:

Child custody and/or visitation

Child support

Spousal support

Mediation of non-custody matters






General Civil Matters

Unlawful detainer

(Landlord and tenant)

Civil harassment

Elder abuse prevention

Workplace violence

Small claims

Limited civil answers

Name change




January workshops at the self-help center include:

• Establishing paternity - Jan. 3, 10 and 24, 5 to 8 p.m.

• Legal issues surrounding filing for divorce - Jan. 8 and 22, 5 to 8 p.m.

Call Cathy McPherson, self-help center clerk, at 536-2984 to register for the workshops

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