Share this on Twitter Share this on Facebook Share this on Linked In Share this by Email
MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Tossing a legal lifeline to working poor and low-income

By Amy Yarbrough
Staff Writer

At an inaugural meeting of the Civil Justice Strategies Task Force last year, Gillian Hadfield offered an alarming statistic.

Speaking before the task force, which looked at ways to bridge the so-called justice gap, the University of Southern California Gould School of Law professor noted that given today’s law firm structure, more than 90 percent of households cannot afford the legal services they need.

Long aware of the dearth of affordable legal services, county bar associations around the state have been stepping up to help low and moderate means residents in their communities, connecting them with low-cost or free legal help on everything from immigration to landlord-tenant disputes.

Lida Sideris, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Bar Association, said her organization was inspired to start its Modest Means Family Law program after receiving a call from a single mother with sole custody of a 4-year-old who was battling her former in-laws over a visitation agreement.

The in-laws had the financial means to hire an attorney, but the mother didn’t, Sideris said. The bar association found a lawyer willing to help the woman at a reduced cost. Soon after, it launched a program which allows participants who qualify to pay a reduced $750 retainer, with hourly fees capped at $150.

Santa Barbara County has a family law facilitator through its superior court who provides classes for self-represented litigants, but Sideris said the service is of little help if the litigant can’t take time off work to attend.

“They were falling through the cracks,” she said. “There was a need that wasn’t being addressed.”

In Northern California, the Bar Association of San Francisco (BASF) through its Lawyer Referral Information Service offers an array of programs aimed at helping people of modest means, according to Carole Conn, director of public service programs. Low-fee legal services are offered in areas including family law, landlord/tenant matters, immigration, bankruptcy, tax, wills and small claims. There’s also a low-fee Military Assistance Program, which helps those currently in the military, their families and veterans with civil issues at significantly reduced rates.

In addition, BASF offers a limited scope representation program for family law and “Lawyers on Call,” which provides 15 minutes of free legal advice by phone for those with basic legal questions. Then there’s its Volunteer Immigration program which “seeks to match individuals who have a meritorious defense to deportation with experienced immigration attorneys for pro bono representation,” Conn said.

Barbara Arsedo, lawyer referral and information service coordinator for the Contra Costa County Bar Association, said her organization can get two or three applications per day for its moderate means programs. The programs cover family law, immigration and elder law, which strives to address an array of legal issues facing senior citizens with limited means.

“There are a lot of seniors out there who just can’t afford an attorney,” she said.

To determine whether someone qualifies for the programs, the bar association looks at income and household size.

For example, a single person making $923 to $1,711 a month would pay $40 to $80 an hour for an attorney, Arsedo said. Someone making $1,712 to $2,500 would pay $80 to $125.

The bar association also offers a limited scope representation for those who make too much for moderate means assistance.

Since 2009, Contra Costa’s moderate means programs have sent 736 clients to an attorney.

Arsedo said that over the years her association has also received a number of positive emails from participants. She shared one response:

“You provided a lifesaving service. Thank you,” it said.

Sideris recalls a similar response from that first young mother that Santa Barbara’s program helped, and she’s heard from a number of participants since.

“They are very grateful because they don’t know what else to do,” she said. “To say they really perk up is putting it mildly.”