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Lawyers provide free legal aid to those in need
She wanted to end the marriage.
Her husband had become abusive – and she had three young children to protect.
But hiring a lawyer would cost too much, and representing herself in court would have been almost impossible. English is not her native language, and the legal documents and court procedures seemed incomprehensible.
So she turned to the Volunteer Lawyer Program of Island County for help. The program offers free civil legal services to people who need help, but can’t afford to pay for it.
Program Coordinator Margaret Delp recalled how frightened the woman was.
“The children were in grave danger,” she said. “They were living in a shelter with less than $100 in the bank.”
A volunteer lawyer first helped the woman get a domestic violence protection order, then helped her get a divorce that included financial support for herself and her children.
The woman and her three children were able to move from a dangerous situation into a place of safety and financial stability, Delp said, fulfilling the mission of the organization to provide civil legal aid to families in crisis.
Clients come for help with a variety of problems, whether they are trying to break free from an abusive relationship, get a divorce, resolve a landlord-tenant dispute, plan their personal estate or deal with the legal ramifications of debt.
The economic recession has prompted an increase in requests for help dealing with home foreclosures, Delp said.
Cases in which there’s an imminent hearing or emergency situations in which children are at risk of being harmed – are given top priority, Delp said.
The program also aims to help people to help themselves. For example, volunteer lawyers offer clinics on divorce, wills and bankruptcy.
The program also offers 45-minute appointments to help review a client’s legal paperwork. In certain cases, the lawyers provide direct assistance by appearing in court on behalf of a client.
This can be for situations in which the client is too frightened to represent themselves effectively or because a disability or language barrier might block effective self-representation.
“When getting a domestic violence protection order, the client may be too fearful to go court to confront the perpetrator alone,” Delp said.
In the first six months of 2012, the program helped 93 families, including 117 children. Of those served, 87 percent of the clients were women, 3 percent were veterans and 18 percent were disabled.
A small number of Island County’s residents possess the required education and state credentials to provide legal advice, most notably having passed the state’s heart-racing and sweat-inducing bar examination.
About a third of those with that combination who are actively practicing law are willing to volunteer their time to this nonprofit program to help those who do not have the money to pay for a lawyer themselves.
The organization has 17 volunteer attorneys who help in various ways, from conducting workshops, serving on the board and mentoring other volunteers to providing direct representation to clients.
From January through June, nine attorneys volunteered 82 hours of their time in direct service to clients.
The problems that people can face demand a wide range of legal expertise and the program taps into the specialties of their volunteer base to match up the client with an attorney in that specialty.
The majority of the cases, up to about 85 percent, are for family law, which includes divorce, housing and foreclosures, tenant rights, consumer debt, employment, estate planning, and domestic violence civil cases.
The organization began a decade ago when attorneys on Whidbey Island banded together to use their skills to help those who couldn’t afford their services.
Due to funding constraints, the program is currently operating in partnership with LAW Advocates in Bellingham.
Although it no longer runs an Oak Harbor office, the program still has a local board and coordinator, and local attorneys providing services to the community.
The program receives referrals from churches, Island County’s Human Services, and law firms, for example. Some people also find out about the program on the Internet.
Requests for no-cost legal help throughout the state are processed by the Northwest Justice Project CLEAR hotline and local cases that meet the financial qualifications get referred to the Volunteer Lawyer Program.
“The laws in our state and country guarantee certain rights,” Delp said. “These rights are not just for those who can afford legal representation.”