Civil Legal Aid and the Value of Pro Bono Work at City Club

"...And Justice for All?"

Two recent City Club speeches featured individuals who spoke eloquently about the barriers low income and poor people have with the American Justice system.  On May 1, they featured Thomas Mesereau Jr. of the Mesereau Law Group who talked about the importance of Pro Bono work by lawyers, judges and all those working with the judicial system as part of Law Day.  Then a week earlier they featured Martha Bergmark of Voices for Civil Justice who gave a defense of expanding access to legal representation for those facing civil court cases.  These two together bookend a really nice look at the big holes in the American system for distributing justice. 

NEOCH partners with the Cleveland Bar Association on Homeless Legal Assistance Program, and has struggled with both topics for discussion.  We only serve people with Civil Matters since we do not have the insurance for criminal cases.  We always have a hard time attracting attorneys to the program and the number of civil cases is overwhelming.  As Ms. Bergmark described these are serious cases including the loss of housing, loss of custody of children and the loss of income in bankruptcy.  Bergmark does a great job of describing the need for access to counsel for low income people.  There is a strong commitment to pro bono work in the legal community, but often that is soft legal work like consulting with the Cleveland Orchestra or serving on the Board of the Center for Families and Children.  These are both worthy organizations who need legal help, but it is not the same as keeping poor people out of the shelters or settling income disputes with employers that might save someone's home. 

We have seen a decline in the number of legal clinics that we offer to homeless people partially because we cannot find enough volunteers to help.  It is very difficult to find help with civil matters such as child custody and divorce.  If you are not a victim of domestic violence, it is impossible to find help with a divorce from a lawyer.   These cases go on for a long time and it is just overwhelming for a volunteer to be involved in these cases for years.  Often, a mother can be tied to this guy who is dragging her into more and more financial peril because she cannot get a divorce.  Her credit will be wrecked sometimes for life which makes it difficult to get a job, housing or a college degree all because she is tied to this man.   Almost all of the programs in Ohio with lawyers for homeless people have gone out of business over the last 10 years.

I recommend listening to these two podcasts from the Cleveland City Club.  The great legal minds in Cleveland need to get together to provide funding for bolstering programs like Cleveland Homeless Legal Assistance to have those opportunities to serve low income individuals.  They need to expand CHLAP and other volunteer driven projects.  It would be great if we had lawyers at the municipal courts to help with evictions of other matters like we do in the criminal courts.  We need more opportunities for low income people to walk in to see a lawyer to answer the question " I have a case or what can I do to defend myself?" 

Brian Davis

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Posted a New Legal Assistance Schedule

We lost a number of clinics over the last year and are having a harder time attracting volunteers, but we posted our schedule for clinic sites for 2015 here.  We believe that Homeless Legal Assistance is one of the core programs in our community to help homeless people.  We could serve 1,000 people a year if we had the volunteer support.  There is a need for eviction help, debt, child support, divorce, bankruptcy, expungement, and child custody cases.  This program is key to moving people back to stability and getting their finances in shape or restoring their licenses. 

Homeless Legal Assistance is 12 years old and currently does not have dedicated staff assigned to the program.  After the 2008 downturn, we had to step back and layoff the staff.  We rely on volunteers to carry this program, and are so thankful for all their help.  The women at the Norma Herr shelter and the folks over at Cosgrove Center love the program.  The people at North Star drop in center for those re-entering after incarceration use the program as do the people at Lakewood Community Services seeking help with evictions.  This is Doug Lawrence, the first attorney hired to oversee the program. 

Brian Davis

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Update on Legal Aid Society of Cleveland

If you want to see one of the  biggest casualties of the 2008 financial downturn visit the lobby of the Legal Aid Society on Tuesday mornings.  You will see long lines, many turned away, and the harm inflicted on legal assistance programs for the poor in the United States with the cut in the interest paid in trust accounts and a decrease in public assistance.  Just when millions were in need of a lawyer to help them weed through the foreclosure crisis and battling the big banks and mortgage companies, the legal aid societies across America reduced staff.  In Cleveland, they had to layoff 8 staff last year and had to limit their services.  The Legal Aid Society in Cleveland serves five counties of poor people with both rural and urban concerns.  Neither the state nor the federal government have stepped in to shore up free legal assistance.  There are so many holes in the system to provide access to effective legal counsel that the scales of justice are leaning heavily against poor people. Lady Justice is on one knee,  the blindfold is tattered, her scales are on the ground while she tries to steady herself.

We had a presentation by the Legal Aid Society this past week who struggle everyday to serve the crush of people who need help.   Did you know:

  • They limit their call backs to only 15 per day because there are so many asking for help.
  • They limit their eviction help to only those in subsidized buildings everyone else is on their own.
  • They limit their divorce help to only those trying to cut ties with an abuser--everyone else is on their own.
  • They have scores of people waiting in their lobby everyday that they take cases. 
  • Legal Aid does not have the manpower to help with most domestic issues (child custody, chid support, etc).
  • They are trying to set up brief advice clinics at Senior centers, libraries and community centers to stay connected with the community (50 last year).  For context our program CHLAP did 122 clinics last year with all volunteers.

They were awarded funds by both Cuyahoga County and the Department of Veterans Affairs to improve services to veterans.  If the veteran can make it through the screening either by calling or going into the headquarters on West Sixth Street, they should receive legal help.   We know that if a lower income person is living in a subsidized property and facing an eviction, they will get the best service possible.  Legal Aid is stretched so thin it is amazing that they can keep all these balls in the air.  The lawyers do work with Consumer laws (foreclosures, bill collectors, predatory loans, utility shut off), Family law (domestic violence issues and child support issues for the disabled), housing evictions, education assistance for kids facing expulsion, Immigration issues, public benefits, and employment disputes.   They could double their staff size and still not able to meet the need in the community.  Each section of the law has very specific guidelines of what cases they will accept and those that they will not accept so that each lawyer can provide effective counsel to their clients and to the courts.

We put such a low premium on the judicial system that we expect many people to go to court without any legal help.  We have stripped Legal Aid of the ability to file class action suits which may have helped against the corruption taking place at Countrywide, Chase and Deutsche Bank.  Often the low income defendant is facing a well funded landlord, employer, or the State of Ohio with a high priced attorney.  In addition, many of these times they are thrown into the judicial system to fend for themselves in situations that can dramatically change their life.  They have to figure out the courts for themselves while they are losing their housing, their children, their credit, their licenses or their jobs.   Legal Aid is the one line of defense, but society have set up a dangerous game in which only a small few get to see a lawyer.  If you want to see the impact of federal or state austerity and the push to cut taxes, go to the Legal Aid Society waiting room on Tuesday or Thursday mornings.  See the desperate people trying to save their homes or the moms trying to end a relationship with a spouse who has turned to drugs and crime and is destroying their family.   Look at the immigrants trying to work through a complicated work visa program and immigration law struggling to stay in the only place they feel they will have a chance to feed their children.   Look in the eyes of the Dad facing garnishment from a predatory and corrupt bill collector.  After talking to a few hundred of these people see if you have a different opinion of politicians who say every day that we have to reduce taxes and cut programs.

Brian Davis

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Is Legal Counsel a Right in the United States?

There was a nice article in the Atlantic this week regarding the right to legal assistance marking the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court case that guaranteed a right to counsel.  NPR also did a similar story this morning.  We wrote about access to legal counsel in the latest issue of the Street Chronicle by Greg and then a follow up question and answer article by a staff member of the ACLU about this issue. 

This is a huge problem within the homeless community, and can significantly increase the stay in a shelter.   As Greg talked about in his article in the Street Chronicle, most of the public defenders meet with their clients for a couple of minutes and then suggest that the individual "take a plea"  from the Prosecutor.   Greg also talked about Prosecutors over-charging people with criminal offenses so that they will take a plea to reduce the offense down to something reasonable.  The risk of going to court and facing a felony that will result in long jail times rather than pleading to a lesser offense and only having a short jail time is real and happens everyday over at the Ontario Court House.  If everyone demanded a trial, the system would grind to a halt and collapse on itself. 

The results of these decisions to avoid a trial are that the individual has a criminal background which could keep them from gainful employment or housing for an extended period of time.  In essence, the individual is bargaining for shorter time behind bars outside to face a longer time in a prison without bars on the outside.  They will face increased risk to their health with sleep deprivation and unstable food intake as well as months waiting for something to change.  They will have to face the humiliation of asking for help with housing and clothing everyday.  Taking the plea can have a negative impact on a person's life for decades.  

We have a homeless legal assistance program in Cleveland.  While we do not deal with the criminal side of the judicial system, we know that the inability to find effective counsel has a devastating effect on low income people even in the civil side of the law.  Often the lack of effective legal assistance results in a person becoming homeless.  About 5-8% of the landlord tenant cases involve issues other than money, and the tenant is at a disadvantage in court.  There are many examples when the employee is improperly terminated or not paid legally, but cannot find legal help.  There are many times when one party cannot afford legal counsel in a divorce and is put in the place to be in debt for the rest of their lives or need some neutral guidance on child support.  On this 50th anniversary of Gideon vs. Wainwright which primarily dealt with the right to counsel for those facing jail time, the right to legal help is tenuous at best.  The right to legal counsel for administrative law and civil law for low income people is a long way from reality.  It is difficult to imagine that legal proceedings that can result in the individual bankrupt and destitute does not require that the individual receive effective legal counsel.

Brian Davis

UPDATE:  The New York Times also featured a story on the 50th anniversary of Gideon and the inability to obtain legal counsel in America.  This article talks about the inability to find help for civil cases.

James J. Sandman, president of the Legal Services Corporation, said, “Most Americans don’t realize that you can have your home taken away, your children taken away and you can be a victim of domestic violence but you have no constitutional right to a lawyer to protect you.”

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