Every year, three out of four low-income households face an urgent civil legal problem, affecting their basic needs like family safety, housing, health and economic security. Alliance for Equal Justice programs work to advise and help people who would otherwise have nowhere else to turn. Legal assistance can be as simple as educating clients about their rights and responsibilities, while some more complex issues may require more extensive representation.
Each day, civil legal aid offices offer to help with urgent (non-criminal) legal matters to vulnerable, low-income people. Here are a few stories from clients we’ve served.
Thurston County Volunteer Legal Services
Hanh’s life has been changed forever by the help provided by Thurston County Volunteer Legal Services. Hanh came to the U.S. from a South East Asian country, and was married to a man from the Olympia area in exchange for a dowry. Hanh and her husband never met prior to the marriage. Hanh’s husband immediately began severely abusing Hanh and she ended up at the Safe Place legal clinic. Hanh was hesitant to disclose any identifying information out of fear that her husband or his family members would find her and continue to abuse her. Due to cultural reasons, Hanh was initially hesitant to seek divorce, despite his ongoing abuse. Additionally her husband had taken her immigration paperwork and withheld all of Hanh’s financial assets. Hanh had lost multiple jobs as a result of the domestic violence and she had no financial resources at the time she went to the Safe Place legal advice clinic.
With the assistance of Safe Place and Thurston County Volunteer Legal Services Hanh has been able to obtain a protection order and proceed with the dissolution. Through working with Safe Place advocates, she is working on completing her immigration paperwork with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. The client has a confidential address (to avoid her ex-husband’s stalking tendencies) and has gained full-time employment. Hanh continues to come to the Safe Place legal advice clinic for assistance with her family law case and for advocate support.
LAW Advocates (Bellingham)
Carson joined the military to serve his country. He served, and he returned a broken man. Carson suffers from PTSD. As war wounds go, PTSD is particularly insidious, leaving bodies whole while destroying lives wholesale. Carson was just such a casualty. Unable to hold a civilian job, he fell into debt and found himself out on the streets. He knew that as a veteran, he ought to have something, some resource available to him, but he didn’t know how to pursue his rights. Contending daily against the relentless chaos of PTSD left him feeling too exhausted to take on government bureaucracy.
That’s when he met Jenny, an attorney at LAW Advocates. As Jenny listened to him tell his story, Carson knew he had finally found someone who understood. Jenny dedicated herself to helping connect Carson with the resources he needed to start putting his life back together. She advocated so successfully for his disability claim that he was not only awarded disability benefits for the present and future, but also payment for two years’ worth of disability benefits that he had forgone after returning home. With this settlement, Carson not only repaid his debts, but was finally able to renew his veteran’s ID, receive medical care, and find a permanent home. He finished working with Jenny a transformed man.
Tacoma Pierce County Volunteer Lawyer Program
Volunteer Lawyer Programs work collaboratively with organizations in their community to provide the best possible services to their clients. Eun Jung was referred to the Tacoma Pierce Volunteer Lawyer Program by the Korean Women’s Association for help with a guardianship matter. Eun Jung’s daughter was paralyzed and had brain damage following a traumatic car accident. Eun Jung was very concerned that her adult daughter was being sexually assaulted at night by her husband. Eun Jung was also worried that her daughter wasn’t being taken care of properly by her caregivers.
Using a Korean interpreter the Volunteer Attorney Program helped Eun Jung contact adult protective services and provided her with an attorney who is assisting her with obtaining guardianship of her daughter so that she can make important decisions to protect her daughter’s interests.
Eastside Legal Assistance Program
Nancy finally had the protection she needed against her abuser. Nancy attended a Family Law Clinic put on by Eastside Legal Assistance Program because she wanted to learn how best to secure a domestic violence protection order as well as a Parenting Plan for her 2-year-old son. She, at the time, was in hiding because the father of her son had held a gun to her face and threatened to kill her in front of their child, but had fled and was able to call for help. The clinic attorney referred her to a staff attorney who specialized in domestic violence for follow up assistance.
The attorney was able to represent her at her hearing for the protection order and assisted her in responding to the abusers allegations that he was the abused party and that instead of Nancy being protected from him, he should be protected from her. He told the court many stories about the abuse Nancy had committed against him, but each one was vague and unclear. By working with the attorneys, Nancy was able to rebut each one of his allegations and was prepared when the court asked her questions during the hearing. The court found that Nancy’s abuser lacked credibility and that Nancy and her son deserved to be safe from him. Her order was granted and the abuser was limited to supervised visits with his son and was ordered to Domestic Violence Batterer’s Treatment.
Chelan-Douglas County Volunteer Attorney Services
Paula came to Chelan-Douglas Volunteer Attorney Services asking for help because her marriage of 34 years was ending. She faced difficult issues: she neither had an income nor any viable job prospects post-divorce because she had abandoned her career as a teacher decades ago to raise her kids. At 63, she also had significant health issues and feared losing insurance coverage through her husband’s employer. Finally, Paula was the primary caregiver for the couple’s adult-age daughter who was disabled. Paula came to Volunteer Attorney Services several times to participate in the organization’s family law clinics, and her confidence grew along with her understanding of the legal process.
She met with attorneys who gave her advice on spousal maintenance, property distribution, healthcare options, and ongoing support for her daughter. She signed up for mediation at the Wenatchee Valley Dispute Resolution Center, and following each session, she came back to Chelan- Douglas Volunteer Attorney Services attorneys to discuss her options.
In August, she reached a settlement with her husband. “I was shaking like a leaf the first time I came to Volunteer Lawyer Services, but I wasn’t shaking the last time,” she said. The legal advice she had received from the lawyers here left her “feeling empowered. I was able to say things based on information the attorneys gave. I was always able to say ‘here’s what I want, and here’s the law on that.’” Paula recalled how she felt when she realized that her marriage was over, before she began the legal process of a divorce. “Nothing was ever funny. But I’m laughing again. I think I did a good thing for my family.”
Spokane County Bar Volunteer Lawyer Program
Every day the Spokane County Bar Volunteer Lawyer Program is a terrific resource for senior tenants facing unscrupulous landlords. Maria is one such tenant. She recently called the Volunteer Lawyer Program because her previous landlord was harassing her about money that Maria believed she did not owe. Maria could prove through correspondence with the landlord that she had done everything right when she moved out of his apartment and she could prove that she did not owe any rent.
Although typically the Volunteer Lawyer Program sends clients like Maria to their Housing Justice Clinic, Maria has trouble getting around due to her physical disabilities and she lives Spokane Valley, so the program was able to conduct Maria’s intake in her home. Maria’s attorney wrote a letter to the landlord explaining that the charges were not acceptable and was able to get the landlord to drop his allegations. Maria felt relief about the outcome and was so appreciative of the assistance the volunteer attorney provided.
Skagit County Volunteer Lawyer Program
A dedicated and caring volunteer attorney is a critical lifeline for vulnerable populations in our state. Recently, the Skagit County Volunteer Lawyer Program was contacted by an advocate with the Hearing, Speech, and Deafness Center. The advocate was looking for help for a deaf client who could not speak American Sign Language, nor could he read or write. The client, Brad, was beginning to learn American Sign Language, but he primarily communicated through gestures. Brad was facing a difficult divorce and he was particularly vulnerable because the opposing party was represented by an attorney. With the help of the advocate, an ASL interpreter, and a certified deaf interpreter, the volunteer attorney represented Brad through mediation up until a final order was entered in the case.
The Volunteer Lawyer Program also arranged for the mediation fees to be waived by the mediator due to the client’s minimal income. Brad was able to reach a settlement that allowed him to remain in his home, which was his primary concern in the divorce. The volunteer attorney made extraordinary efforts to ensure that Brad understood his rights and the legal process. The volunteer also made sure that he fully understood Brad’s needs and positions throughout the divorce, giving Brad a voice in the process that would not have been possible without the assistance of an attorney.
Cowlitz Wahkiakum Legal Aid
The services provided by Cowlitz Wahkiakum Legal Aid helped Jeannette finally get back on her feet. Jeannette was married and had a child, but her husband suddenly turned into a violent abuser. Jeannette left him rather than expose her son to potential violence and got custody of her son. After the divorce, however, Jeannette had a difficult time finding work and lost her ability to provide stable housing. As a result her ex-husband was given custody of her son. Jeannette was destroyed by this news and soon turned to drugs. It wasn’t long before Jeannette was arrested on drug-related charges. She was accepted into the Drug Court program and began to participate in various services to help her overcome her situation. Soon, she was able to re-establish a stable home. A volunteer attorney from Legal Aid agreed to provide Jeannette with full representation to help her regain custody of her child. Jeannette and her son are reunited now, as she continues to make her way toward graduation from the Drug Court program. She is volunteering in various agencies in town in order to improve her administrative skills and go back into the job market.
Like What You’ve Read? There Are Several Ways to Get Involved
The Alliance for Equal Justice depends on caring individuals like you to support civil legal aid programs and ensure that everyone in Washington has meaningful access to our justice system. Click the link below to see the type of available opportunities to help.