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Hang out on the first floor of Island County Law and Justice Center at the right time and you're bound to overhear a lot of people frustrated, sometimes loudly, by the mechanisms of the law.
It's especially tough for people who come to court without a lawyer and try to figure out the forms and processes by themselves.
To help those with the fewest resources with their legal troubles, a group of attorneys and advocates started the Volunteer Lawyer Program of Island County. The group opened its doors in August and already has seen, firsthand, the overwhelming legal needs in the county. The program hasn't been advertised and the members just put up the sign Monday, but already people with tenant, child custody, divorce and other legal problems have been calling and stopping by.
It's not surprising, given the statistics. The U.S. Census Bureau indicates that more than 4,700 people live below the poverty line in Island County. Low-income households in the county have about 2,219 cumulative legal problems annually, according to estimates from the American Bar Association, but 61 to 75 percent of poor people's legal needs go unmet.
Oak Harbor Attorney Mark Hansen, president of the VLP, starting organizing the effort about a year ago after realizing how large the need is in the community for free, pro-bono legal service. "Sometimes a client will come to my office and I'm the fifth lawyer he's contacted," Hansen said. "He doesn't have any money and I just don't have the time to spend."
But now with the Volunteer Lawyer Program, lawyers can now have somewhere local to refer low-income clients.
Yvette War Bonnet of Columbia Legal Services said there have been several attempts over the years to start a free legal service in the county, but they all fizzled out somehow. She said it was Hansen's determination, along with the other board members, that finally made it happen.
Right now, Hansen said the group is providing free legal service -- not full legal representation -- for people with income at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. For a family of four, for example, 125 percent of the federal poverty line would amount to an annual income of $22,625.
Hansen explained that the initial programs the group is offering include the Lawyer of the Day, in which a designated attorney donates a day or part of a day to help individuals whove made appointments.The lawyers will give advice and counsel primarily in matters dealing with family law, preservation of housing, consumer, bankruptcy and collection matters.
Hansen said sometimes a persons problem is an easy fix for an attorney, which is something low-income people often miss out on. He recently helped keep a woman, for example, from being evicted by making a few simple calls. It just took some communication, he said
Criminal defense, of course, is already provided by the county for free to lower-income people.
The pro-bono attorneys provide what it called unbundled legal service. A lawyer goes in and does one thing, Hansen said. It could involve going to court on a child custody issue if theres abuse. ... (the attorney) creates stability in what could be a violent situation.
Hansen said he would like the program to offer more extensive legal services in the future, but right now they dont have the resources.
In order to help people help themselves, the VLP will soon have a computer with user-friendly internet access to legal information and document production software. The office is located on Midway Boulevard in Oak Harbor, behind the Whidbey Playhouse.
The program is also a kind of clearinghouse or referral service. The program coordinator, Rita Worley, fields calls and may send the person to the Northwest Justice Project, for example, which has experts in things like Social Security disability law. The Northwest Justice Project, in turn, may refer people back to the Volunteer Lawyer Program for simpler, local matters.
In addition, the lawyers hope to offer a series of free workshops, open to everyone, on specific areas of the law. On Nov. 13, attorney Bob Born is conducting a bankruptcy workshop.
The Volunteer Lawyer Program is currently funded by a $20,000 grant from the Legal Foundation of Washington and $3,000 from Island Thrift. Valerie Stafford, the former CADA director, is the programs volunteer grant writer. The group is looking at a variety of funding sources for the future, including community donations.
Professional liability insurance is provided to the program for free by Columbia Legal Services.
Along with helping low-income people, the program will also undoubtedly give the community another perspective on the often-maligned group called attorneys.
We are lawyers who are volunteering their time, Hansen said. If everyone does a little bit, we can make a big difference.
Free bankruptcy seminar Nov. 13
Attorney Rob Born is offering a free bankruptcy workshop on behalf of the Volunteer Lawyer Program of Island County. Topics will include practical considerations on whether to file bankruptcy, tips on filing forms, procedures for sending in forms and attending creditors meetings in Everett.
The workshop will be Wednesday, Nov. 13, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the VLP office at 745 SE Maylor Boulevard (behind Whidbey Playhouse). Space is limited. Call 576-4750 to sign up.
You can reach Jessie Stensland at email@example.com or call 675-6611.