'Access to Justice' seeks to provide legal assistance to needy

Wednesday, July 1, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 12:07 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 1, 2009

COLUMBIA — Local judges, attorneys and officials have labored for more than a year putting together a program that provides free legal services to needy Boone and Callaway county residents who can't get help anywhere else.

Mid-Missouri Access to Justice will open donated office space at 400 Wilkes Blvd. some time this month and organizers will start accepting calls from prospective clients today.

Want to access justice in Mid-Missouri?

Call coordinator Negar Jackson at (573) 474-2292 to apply. To qualify, residents must need assistance with domestic violence or domestic relations cases and earn between 125 and 150 percent of the federal poverty line.

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Susan Lutton, executive director of Mid-Missouri Legal Services, said the new program fills a growing need.

"Our caseload's shot up since the economy went belly-up," Lutton said. "A lot more people are qualifying for our services because they'd been laid off. The number of poor people has greatly increased. You have more clients but you don't have more money to serve those clients."

Mid-Missouri Legal Services provides free assistance to needy clients in civil cases such as divorce, child custody and landlord-tenant relations. Unlike the new Access to Justice program, which started with $52,500 in grant money and will depend primarily on community support, Legal Services is funded by federal, local and state governments.

In a one-month period between May and June 2008, Legal Services accepted 125 clients and turned 59 away. Of those 59, 24 earned more than 125 percent of the federal poverty line and 16 had conflicts of interest with current or past clients. If Access to Justice has its way, many of these rejected clients will get the assistance they seek.

Access to Justice will help those from Boone and Callaway counties whose earnings fall between 125 percent and 150 percent of the poverty line, as well as the estimated 10 percent of clients Legal Services must turn away due to conflicts of interest.

Lutton said the program was conceived because of "the number of people the court was seeing that weren't being served by us."

"There are a lot of people who apply here who don't qualify for our services," Lutton said. "Our goal ultimately with Access to Justice is to serve all the way up to 200 percent because that's still very very poor."

Judge Leslie Schneider, whose docket on the 13th Circuit often includes some of the litigants that Access to Justice is seeking to help, said the low-income residents were in great need of professional legal representation and advice.

"Nobody in the judiciary says the legal system is not aware that there are people who can't afford" the help of an attorney, Schneider said. Yet many are in dire need of one.

"If you had cancer, you wouldn't want to treat it yourself ... there are reasons that there are lawyers," Schneider said. "Doing a legal action isn't like just going to the grocery store."

Thirteenth Circuit Clerk Christy Blakemore said having another resource for people who need legal advice — which she says is helpful even in relatively simple cases like uncontested divorces — would make her job easier.

Litigants can represent themselves in any civil case, but many don't realize how often paperwork and other administrative details lie between them and the courtroom.

"If you have an attorney, they can explain those things to you," Blakemore said.

Organizers hope to someday assist a broad range of people currently unable to afford legal assistance, but for now they will focus on domestic violence and domestic relations as $37,500 of their grant money is specifically earmarked for that purpose. The money is provided by the Missouri Supreme Court's Family Court Committee's Domestic Violence Resolution Fund.

The remaining $15,000 came from the Missouri Lawyer Trust Account Foundation, which distributes money raised by a statewide program that pools retainers paid for by clients of Missouri lawyers into interest-bearing funds.

When a prospective client applies for assistance, project coordinator Negar Jackson will vet that person's application. If she approves it, she will find a participating attorney who is willing to help with the case.

In the future, the program hopes to get MU law students on board, allowing them to gain practical experience under the supervision of experienced attorneys.

Jackson, an MU-educated immigration lawyer, began work in April. Her family fled Iran to escape religious persecution when she was 8 years old, and she said the position fits closely with her personal beliefs and goals.

"For my life and my religious views, it's really important," Jackson said. "Being a Baha'i and living in Iran, I would not have even been able to go to university," she said.

Now she's committed to using the opportunities provided to her in her adopted homeland.

"Everybody needs to get out there and make a difference," she said.

Jackson said the community will "really need to become involved for it to be successful." Already, a groundswell of community support has helped get the program off the ground. Central Missouri Community Action's Darin Preis donated the office space, and 33 local lawyers have signed up to donate time and legal assistance.

Lutton said a community-supported effort like Access to Justice would face significant, but surmountable, hurdles.

"There's no question that it'll be a challenge," Lutton said. "We're not like the big cities where we have literally thousands of attorneys. It'll be a challenge. Negar has her work cut out for her. I think it can be done, it's just gonna take a lot of time and a lot of attention, it's not going to happen overnight."

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