AP NEWS

No right to attorney in civil cases, but free aid available

November 2, 2019

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Anyone who has watched “Law & Order” or any police drama knows that someone accused of a crime is guaranteed representation by a lawyer, regardless of the ability to pay.

That’s not true in civil cases. In certain cases, such as child custody issues or landlord-tenant disputes, the guidance of a lawyer is sorely needed.

Nonetheless, legal help is available to those who need assistance. And too many people don’t realize it, attorneys say.

During “Pro Bono Week,” the Pennsylvania Bar Association, MidPenn Legal Services and other legal groups want people to know they offer programs to those who need a lawyer in civil cases. The term “pro bono” refers to legal work at no cost.

Corky Goldstein, a lawyer who has worked in central Pennsylvania for decades, is doing his part to spread the word. He helped start a legal aid program in Dauphin County 50 years ago.

“It is our responsibility to make sure or to try and make sure that the legal system is open to all people,” said Goldstein. “If people don’t have competent representation, they’re at a disadvantage.”

Many are unaware of the avenues to access legal aid.

One in six Pennsylvanians qualifies for free civil legal aid because of their income, according to MidPenn Legal Services, which provides assistance throughout central Pennsylvania. However, only 20 percent of low-income Pennsylvanians who have a legal problem are able to get help from any source, the group says.

MidPenn Legal Services, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, offers legal help in 18 counties.

“We continue to address the basic needs of food, housing, personal safety and income that stabilize families and enhances the quality of life for entire communities,” Rhodia Thomas, executive director of MidPenn, said in a PennLive opinion piece this week.

The Pennsylvania Bar Association and county bar associations regularly hold workshops offering legal guidance on critical topics. Gov. Tom Wolf declared Oct. 20-26 Pro Bono Week in Pennsylvania, coinciding with a national observance to promote awareness of free legal services.

The state bar association offers a “Wills for Heroes” program that provides guidance in estate planning for first responders and military veterans. The program has served about 13,000 people.

“These are the individuals who have given so much for us,” said Anne John, president of the state bar association. “This is our way of giving back.” (The state bar association’s website offers a rundown of all its pro bono programs.)

Sandra Ballard coordinates the public services program for the Dauphin County Bar Association. She works to help find lawyers to aid those who need representation.

“With civil matters, we don’t have a right to a free attorney even if you’re very low income,” Ballard said. “You could get evicted, you could lose custody of your children. Without legal help, it’s very difficult.”

Ballard said attorneys aim to fill “the justice gap” for vulnerable residents with low-incomes.

“The justice gap as we call it is still there,” Ballard continued. “Our pro bono or volunteer attorneys try to step in.”

The Dauphin County bar works with MidPenn Legal Services to help people in everything from child custody cases to aiding those in abusive relationships understand how to apply for court protection. Other programs are designed to help people apply for their driver’s license if it’s suspended.

The state bar association has also been running clinics to help people take advantage of Pennsylvania’s new “Clean Slate” law.

The law, which Wolf signed last year, enables those who qualify to have their criminal records sealed if they have stayed out of trouble with the law for a lengthy period. It’s designed to help people find jobs without the stigma of a conviction that may discourage prospective employers from hiring them.

“Clean Slate of course is really a wonderful initiative that can help people gain access to jobs and housing,” John said. (Find out more information about sealing criminal records at mycleanslatepa.com.)

In its PennLive op-ed this week, MidPenn Legal Services said more lawyers should engage in work to help those in poverty. The group handles more than 10,000 cases annually.

“Today an ever-shrinking number of legal services programs - and legal services attorneys - view their role and mission as anti-poverty work,” Eliz Nestorov, MidPenn’s director of development, wrote in the PennLive piece.

Goldstein, a former Harrisburg City Solicitor and former vice president of Harrisburg City Council, speaks passionately about the importance of pro bono work. He encourages lawyers to take on pro bono cases. The work helps those in need and it helps attorneys become better lawyers, he argues.

“I believe that when lawyers get their license to practice law, which I think is a great privilege, they also have accepted a sacred obligation, as they move forward in their legal careers . to give what time they could to pro bono services,” Goldstein said.

Goldstein said it’s understandable that lawyers managing heavy workloads may not always feel like they have time for pro bono work. But he said such work is rewarding.

“I’ve never heard from any lawyer who has done pro bono work and said, ‘I’m so sorry I did it,‘” Goldstein said. “Generally they say ‘I think I got more out of it than they did.’”

Those seeking legal help across the state can find more information at https://www.palawhelp.org .

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Online:

https://bit.ly/2N93cb2

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Information from: Pennlive.com, http://www.pennlive.com