‘Where to start’: UC Berkeley students seek help with legal challenges

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Campus's Student Legal Services provides free, confidential legal services for registered UC Berkeley students.

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Many UC Berkeley students are familiar with the everyday strife caused by college life: midterm exams, financial pressure and roommate conflicts, to name a few.

In some cases, however, issues can arise that require resolution through legal means.

Mark Lucia, attorney for students and director of campus Student Legal Services, or SLS, named uninhabitable apartments, illegal eviction situations, custody disputes or vehicle accidents as several examples of such problems.

“Under the best of circumstances, these experiences are an unwelcome distraction from life and school,” said Lucia. “In some cases, though, they actually jeopardize students’ ability to continue their education.”

That’s when services such as SLS come into the picture. SLS provides free, confidential consultations for currently registered UC Berkeley students on legal questions, rights and obligations.

Last year, SLS provided 1,398 consultations to student clients. Of those consultations, the majority were focused on landlord-tenant issues — according to Lucia, the switch to remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic led to an increase in consultations regarding breaking lease agreements.

“There’s been a lot of laws and ordinances dealing with COVID-19 that have changed the rights and responsibilities of landlords and tenants very dramatically,” said Alex Verbeck, attorney at Verbeck Law.

In addition to SLS, campus students may also be able to seek assistance from independent law firms and community legal organizations.

Renters’ Legal Assistance is an organization run by undergraduate students at UC Berkeley that focuses specifically on helping the Bay Area community with rent law.

“Many students just don’t know where to start,” said Benjamin Vuong, a co-director for Renters’ Legal Assistance, in an email. “They’re first-time renters, so they might not be aware of the laws and their rights.”

While housing-related legal issues are common among undergraduate students, there are also a variety of different legal areas students may seek help for.

Stouffer Law is a law firm that specializes in immigration law. According to Christine Stouffer, attorney at Stouffer Law, UC Berkeley partnered with her office to provide free legal services for students filing an initial Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, application when the DACA program began in 2012.

“The main cases we’ve worked on for UC Berkeley students have been related to marriage-based immigration applications, screening for asylum cases and U visas and filing DACA applications and renewals,” Stouffer added in an email.

Still, campus students may face obstacles in the process of seeking legal service.

According to Lucia, the two greatest barriers to students receiving legal support are lack of awareness surrounding their potential legal rights and the potential expenses of hiring an attorney if one is needed.

Stouffer also noted legal fees would likely pose a challenge for college students. However, she added “the San Francisco Bay Area has a good deal of free and low-cost legal services available.”

An additional and unforeseen challenge is the backlog of cases going to court as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The court systems are barely functioning at this point,” said Verbeck. “It’s very unclear how the most frequently used parts of the legal system are actually working right now.”

SLS has seen a steady increase in the number of students who come in for consultations over the last 15 years, according to Lucia.

Historically, SLS has only been staffed by one attorney. This position has been filled by Lucia since 2007, but a discretionary grant was recently awarded to SLS by the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Student Services and Fees to temporarily fund an additional, part-time attorney.

“We’re in the process of recruiting for this new position and hope to have someone starting during the spring semester, to serve for approximately 18 months,” Lucia said in an email. “This will increase our capacity to provide student legal consultations, and hopefully to broaden outreach and education for students about their legal rights.”

Amy Zeng is a general assignment reporter. Contact her at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @amyzengg.