More legal aid for MU students

Friday, June 22, 2007 | 12:34 a.m. CDT; updated 4:27 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Rachel Anderson is keeping her fingers crossed.

The Missouri Student Association president proposed that MU’s Student Legal Services not only offer legal advice to students, but also represent them.

“Right now (Student Legal Services attorney Stephen Concannon) can give you advice, but he can’t call people on your behalf or represent you in court,” Anderson said.

Concannon said landlord-tenant disputes are a major issue he deals with on a day-to-day basis. Concannon said the most common ways landlords cheat student tenants are by wrongfully withholding security deposits, not making timely repairs and making frivolous claims of damage for nothing more than ordinary wear and tear.

For a tenant who gets stuck with $600 in bogus damage claims, it isn’t cost-effective to hire a lawyer to dispute them, Concannon said. Because landlords know only a small number of tenants will fight the excessive charges, Concannon said he suspects many landlords make such shady dealings part of their normal business practices and simply factor in the cost of defending the occasional tenant’s lawsuit.

By offering representation to students for a fraction of the cost of hiring a private lawyer, Concannon thinks his office can significantly alter the cost-benefit analysis that currently encourages landlords to exploit the legal naivete of their tenants.

For many MU students, moving to college is the first time they have to deal with leases and contracts, Anderson said. International students are especially at risk of being duped by fraudulent marketing schemes to which most American students have become immune.

Both Anderson and Concannon said Student Legal Services would not be able to represent one student against another, or a student against the university because both scenarios would present an impermissible conflict of interest.

Anderson said she got the idea at a conference with student representatives from other Big 12 schools that already offer legal representation to students in limited situations.

Shelley Stall, director of Student Legal Services at the University of Nebraska, said her office employs two full-time attorneys and a secretary. “We handle between 1,200 and 1,300 cases a year,” she said. “About 18 percent of those involve litigation.”

Jo Hardesty, managing attorney for Legal Services for Students at the University of Kansas, said her office is funded by a fee of $8.50 per student per semester, and $4.50 per student in the summer. Her office also employs law students to do legal research.

Anderson said she would like to see a similar program established at MU in partnership with the law school.

Once a proposal is decided upon, Anderson said they will have to submit it to the UM System Board of Curators for approval.

But Kathy Murray, assistant director of MU’s Department of Student Life, cautioned that the proposal is in its early stages. She said the first step will be visiting similar programs at other schools.

“We’ve just had the initial conceptual plan laid out by our student leaders,” Murray said. “We need to get our ducks in a row before we present any kind of proposal to the university administration.”

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