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.
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