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Attorneys save the day

The woman had nowhere to turn.

She had moved with her child from the Philippines to Oak Harbor with the father of her child. They planned to marry, but he changed his mind. He kicked her out of their house, keeping the little girl, and got a restraining order against her. The woman had only days until her visa expired and she would be sent back to home — without her daughter.

That’s when Rita Worley, the program manager for the Volunteer Lawyer Program of Island County, stepped in. She set the penniless woman up with Mirka Nakovski, an immigration attorney who lives on South Whidbey, who represented her pro bono — for free.

Everything worked out. “It was a very compelling case,” Nakovski said. “I was very glad to do it, reuniting a mother and daughter. And we got her child support.”

A child advocacy volunteer told the story during an open house event by the VLP last Wednesday morning. The Alliance for Equal Justice and legal-aid providers in 19 locations across the state hosted events to recognize attorneys who provide free service to the poor and to highlight the need for civil legal aid for the low-income.

The guest speaker at the Oak Harbor event was John C. Coughenour, a Whidbey Island resident and Chief Justice on the Western Washington Federal District Court. Island County Superior Court Judge Alan Hancock opened the program, and woke everyone up, by playing the bagpipes.

Vickie Churchill, the other Superior Court judge in the county, spoke about the September 2003 Washington State Civil Legal Needs Study, which she called “both shocking and revealing.” While the state pays attorneys to represent low-income folks in criminal cases, the government provides only scant funding for civil legal aid. For the most part, the burden of helping the low-income has fallen to volunteer attorneys.

According to the study, about 87 percent of low-income households in the state have a civil legal problem each year. Most experience more than one problem, often involving safety or subsistence. Low-income people face 88 percent of their legal problem without the aid of an attorney.

Society’s most vulnerable people, Churchill said, have the most legal problems. Woman and children have more than the average amount of civil legal problems, especially involving family law and domestic violence. Minorities and the impaired also have to deal with legal trouble more often that the average person.

“With over 1 million low-income people in Washington,” she said, “the number of unmet legal needs is staggering.”

Following Churchill, Coughenour spoke about the pro bono work for the low-income he did, back when he was a practicing attorney in the 1960s, at a University of Washington legal clinic. He told a story about a woman he helped who wanted to get a rental deposit back from a landlord known for refusing to refund deposits. He took photographs of the woman cleaning the apartment, as well as before and after-cleaning photos of the apartment.

Nevertheless, the landlord refused to give the deposit back and the case ended up in court. Coughenour won both the deposit and attorney’s fees.

“They are some of the most enjoyable cases I’ve had,” he said.

Coughenour went on to talk about how astounded he was by the level of need in the community for the civil legal assistance. He commended the attorneys for the work they’ve done and encouraged them to do more.

“It seems to me that the unsung heroes of the legal profession are those people who do this sort of work...” he said. “The public doesn’t know how much the lawyers are doing for the community.”

The Volunteer Lawyer Program of Island County has assisted about 700 people since opening in July of 2002. Worley said that includes direct representation, advice and unbundled services, such as writing a letter or contacting a landlord. About 25 attorneys in the county have participated. The majority of the cases involve custody, family court, domestic violence and landlord-tenant law.

The goal of the VLP program, Worley said, it to get a part-time attorney on staff. By comparison, many other counties in the state have legal aid programs with full-time lawyers. But the problem is funding. This year the program received just over $19,000 from the Legal Foundation of Washington, which funds Worley’s part-time position, as well as rent and utilities.

Without volunteer attorneys, there would be no program. “I’m personally impressed by the bar association in this county,” she said. “The attorneys really don’t get any recognition for the work they do.”

You can reach Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or 675-6611.

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