What will it be like, if legal aid disappears?
Who will they call? The elderly veteran in Belpre living on SSI threatened with jail by an out-of-state debt collector harassing him about a debt they claim his deceased wife owed. The single mom in Caldwell afraid to go to work because her landlord is threatening to lock her family out and dispose of her possessions. The unemployed worker in Malta whose rent is due while his unemployment benefits have been screwed up by some faceless bureaucracy far away in Columbus.
The most valuable service provided by attorneys is not the dramatized courtroom work shown on television. It is answering questions, calming fears, or helping keep molehills from growing into mountains. It is advising scared and upset people what not to do as much as what best to do. It is preventive; it is keeping people out of court, more than getting them in.
This is the fourth SEOLS briefly. Each one has focused on the good work of one of SEOLS’s nine offices—work in the courts and in the community that saved homes, built medical/legal collaborations, and set up free tax and legal clinics. This issue and article focus on the SEOLS Marietta office which—in addition to its legal work for thousands of clients, like Mr. Latham—has helped establish free dental and medical clinics in Washington County.
In addition to their work in the courts and communities, what they all do, and none better than SEOLS’ Marietta staff, is keep people out of court, make a few calls to untangle bureaucratic snafus, and resolve disputes and misunderstandings. Each of the above individuals’ problems, if no attorney was available to call, could easily snowball into damages, litigation, and, possibly, knock down already teetering low-income homes. Senior citizens, out of fear of being arrested, will pay a debt collector they do not owe rather than use the money for a necessary expense—like food or their prescription medication—and their health suffers. The single mom may lose her job and the police may get called if an attorney is not available to call her landlord and persuade him not to carry out his threats and explore a possible resolution. The unemployed worker can get caught up in protracted administrative proceedings without income and his family facing homelessness if an attorney is not available to make a few calls to the right person in the right agency.
The question of what will happen if legal aid disappears is a real one. Due to our Great Recession, the number of poor people the Marietta office was funded to serve increased by over 72% between 2008 and 2013, while a dramatic reduction in state and federal funding resulted in a 60% cut in the office legal staff. Now, there are only two attorneys and funding cuts continue. In the twelve months prior to September 1, 2013, the Marietta office helped the poor of Washington, Monroe, Morgan and Noble Counties with over 1,000 legal problems. Approximately 90% of that help was advice or a phone call made, a document prepared, or a letter sent for people not knowing what to do or how best to deal with their problems. If legal aid disappears, these legal problems do not disappear. Like unattended problems, they grow more expensive and difficult to fix. Not just for the poor and their families but for their communities, hospitals, law enforcement, and the courts.