About the Center
We protect victims of domestic violence and improve the well-being of children living in poverty. With the help of volunteers, the Center provides free family law assistance and legal education to the poor. We strive to empower people in need and assure them meaningful access to the courts.
We aspire to create a community where poverty is not a barrier to those who seek to resolve critical family law matters.
About the Harriett Buhai Center
The Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law (The Center) was founded in the early 1980s by Black Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles County Bar and Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles. Since its inception, the Center has served as a cornerstone of family law and domestic violence assistance for low-income persons in California.
Who We Help
Utilizing volunteers comprised primarily of lawyers and law students, the Center provides free direct legal assistance to over 1,000 very poor persons and 2,000 children each year. Through its community outreach, legal education and referral efforts the Center impacts more than 5,000 individuals each year. The Center handles the most personal and important legal problems an individual can face; issues regarding personal safety, the well-being of children and a family’s economic security. The majority of individuals who come to the Center are mothers, victims of domestic violence and living with their children earning an average of $900 per month. They arrive at the Center desperate, confused and in often grim circumstances. The Center’s pioneering methods of self-help assistance empower people in need making them a full partner in the effort to present their cases in court. The success of the Center’s program has lead to its adaptation by other institutions and agencies in Los Angeles.
Beyond the Center’s Doors
In addition to its path-breaking self-help program, the Center sponsors an assembly of volunteer lawyers. Pro bono attorneys represent low-income litigants facing barriers preventing them for effective self-representation. The Center has the largest family law pro bono panel in the region, and among the top in the state.
Over the years, in response to community needs, the Center engaged in child support reform, helping to improve the state and local government collection programs and undertook one of the first joint endeavors with a domestic violence shelter to mutually serve victims and was nationally recognized for this innovation. The Center has also reached out to students at community colleges who are low-income parents and facing barriers to their education because of family problems such as domestic abuse. The Center also hosts a unique legal education program for women inmates at the LA County Jail. The Center continues to be active in other systemic reform efforts helping to guarantee access to the courts for low-income litigants. The Center authors a well-regarded publication, “Family Law Basics”, which is updated annually and trains lawyers and paralegals through its continuing legal education programs.
History of the Center
The Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law was founded in 1982 and is a co-sponsored project of Black Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles (BWL), the Los Angeles County Bar Association, and Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles (WLALA). In 1981 due to federal funding cutbacks, the largest legal aid program in LA closed its family law program. Envisioning the impact this action would have on poor women and children, WLALA, under the leadership of Patsy Ostroy, approached BWL, under the leadership of Mablean Ephriam, and invited them to form a joint project offering assistance for low-income persons in Los Angeles County.
The “Family Law Project” was born and opened its doors in late 1982 at a location on Central Avenue in South Los Angeles. A fundamental tenet of the Project was self-help; teaching low-income persons to prepare their family law cases and represent themselves in court, with much of the help provided by volunteers. Now common place, at the time it was a revolutionary concept in family law. In 1984 The Family Law Project was re-named the “Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law”. During that time the LA County Bar determined to join the two other pioneering bar associations as a sponsor, resulting from the efforts of Susan Stockel, an early Buhai Board member. In 1985 WLALA and BWL achieved national recognition as recipients of an award from the National Conference of Womens’ Bar Associations for their work establishing the Center, in an historic ceremony at the U.S. Supreme Court. Now an icon in family law, the Center is truly the product of untold numbers of persons; its founders, boards, staffs, volunteers, donors and others, working together to successfully create a living and still growing institution dedicated to helping those without means and power.
Who is Harriett Buhai?
Harriett Buhai (1916-1983), a woman whose life was characterized by activism on behalf of the defenseless, enjoyed a distinguished career that spanned over 50 years of American political history. As a certified family law specialist, Harriett provided pro bono legal assistance to needy families in South Central Los Angeles and was an active member of WLALA. Harriett was on the forefront of attorneys representing poor women at low or no cost. After her death on December 9, 1983, colleagues and friends at the Women Lawyers Association proposed that the fledging organization, “Family Law Project” be renamed in her honor. In November of 1984, the new corporation was registered by the CA Secretary of State, as the “Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law.”
Today, the work of the Center stands as a testament to this dynamic woman who, in the words of Judge Isabel R. Cohen (Ret.), used her legal talents and “gave them away free, without reward except that which comes inwardly to a person of values who does right in disregard of popular opinion and public appeal.”