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A Practical and Brief Introduction to the California Justice System

In California we have State and Federal Courts. The Federal Courts only have competency in very limited situations, such as lawsuits in which the government or foreign persons or companies are parties to the action, or in actions based in federal laws, such as immigration law. In the great majority of cases, individuals seek justice from the state court to hear their dispute.

California's courts are subdivided by Counties. These courts applied California law and are ruled by California constitution and law. Indeed, family law, civil and commercial lawsuits and criminal complaints are all filed with the State Court. A special division is the "Small Claims Court" which intervenes in cases where the amount demanded does not exceed $10,000.00 (less in certain cases). In Small Claims Court, the parties represent themselves (attorneys are not allowed), and the case is resolved at one hearing in front of the judge.

In all other cases, the parties to the lawsuit may represent themselves (act in pro-per) or may retain an attorney. Only in criminal cases, the government will appoint an attorney if you cannot get one. Attorneys must be licensed by the California Bar Association to represent parties in court and provide legal advice in California. Notarios are not attorneys and, different from South American countries, they do not need to go to law school or any school.

In family law, California adhered to the community property system, which means that in general, the spouses divide equally their assets and debt acquired during marriage, at the time of separation and divorce. Besides, the Court disfavors the spousal support, but each case is viewed in particular, taking in consideration the length of the marriage and how much each spouse contributed with his/her income during marriage. Father and mother have identical rights and obligations related to their children. The judges are very strict in setting and enforcing child support obligations.

In regards to car and motorcycle accidents and slip and fall injuries, the one that suffers damages or injuries may claim compensation from the one causing the accident, if the other party was responsible (i.e. negligent driving). The victim may claim a sum of money that covers all her damages such as car repair, rent a car, medical bills, loss of earnings and loss of earning ability, etc. If the claimant suffered personal injuries, she may also request a compensation for pain and suffering. The most important issue is these cases, is that the victim of her representative, exposed her negotiating abilities to obtain a fair compensation within a short time, while preparing a strategy to win in the event that litigation is needed. The statute of limitation for this kind of claims is 2 years from the date of the accident.

Immigration is one of the most specialized areas, requiring a deep knowledge and solid experience in the subject. One of the characteristics making it difficult as area of practice is the variety of laws that apply and the continuous amendments of its laws. The United States has a restrictive immigration system for those who fall within one of the categories in the law. A foreigner may request a non-immigrant visa or permanent visa. The non-immigrant visas are given under certain categories such as turism and business (B1-B2) which do not authorize to work in this country, or working visas such as H1B, O, L, P, E, etc.). These visas are limited in time and can be obtained while the process for the permanent residence is pending.

The processes to obtain the "Green Card" or legal permanent residence are based in family and work, mainly; and in a group of law that apply to certain individuals or to defend from deportation. Applications by family members are based in close relationship: spouse, children, parents y siblings (these last two cases when the petitioner is U.S. Citizen). Applications through work are made with an offer of employment and have a double process first before the Department of Labor and later with the Citizenship and Immigration Services. Besides these applications, there are laws allowing applications for political asylum, visas for victims of violent crimes (Visa U), visas for witness cooperating with the government in a criminal case (Visa S), visas for victims of human trafficking (Visas T); applications for victims of domestic violence (VAWA) and other applications and defenses that may also end in a temporary or permanent lawful stay.

Citizens from certain countries are allowed temporary visits to the U.S. without a visa, under the program called "Visa Waiver Program "(VWP). When these individuals enter the U.S. with their passport, they are allowed to stay 3 months. During their stay they cannot work and must leave buy the set time. If these rules were not followed, the alien would be able to leave the Country but will not be allowed to come back. This 3-month stay cannot be extended. Most importantly, these visitors are not entitled to a process before the immigration judge, except one limited exception in case they are found to have a credible fear of returning to their home Country. In consequence, people who entered with visa waiver and overstayed their visa may be arrested and deported by an immigration officer, without seeing a judge.

If you or someone you know need legal advice, go to a legal professional. A licensed attorney with ethics will always explore the case to determine if she can help you before starting to charge you. On the other hand and when the time comes to retain legal representation, remember that getting a notario or paralegal to save money is like moving the clock hands back to save time.

Mariela Caravetta

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Law Offices of
Mariela Caravetta


Van Nuys Office
6211 Van Nuys Blvd.
Suite 200
Van Nuys, CA 91401
Phone: 818-902-2111
Toll Free: 800-999-9012
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