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Equal access to justice: The impact of Ohio's legal aid societies

by Stephanie Beougher

“When funds for civil legal services are unavailable to provide service to eligible clients, the impact on all segments of society is detrimental to the administration of justice.” — OSBA President Carol Seubert Marx, Sept. 13, 2011

A little more than 15 years ago, Ilah Adkins was a young mother of two and barely 30-days sober when she walked into the office of the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland. Adkins did not have a steady job or a permanent home, and she needed help getting out of an abusive marriage.

“My legal aid attorney, Alexandria Ruden, specialized in working with women in abusive situations. She asked me questions that challenged me to consider the direction of my life.” That encounter changed Adkins’ life. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in political science from Cleveland State University and a law degree from the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. In 2011, Adkins was named the agency’s board president. “Legal Aid’s services gave me the stability I needed to find my way out of poverty. In this difficult economy, hardships for people are increasing, and Legal Aid has to meet ever-growing demands with limited resources. There is immense need for more pro bono legal assistance and financial support.”

While Adkins’ story may not be typical, there are many other Ohioans who have benefitted from legal services. In 2010, the five legal aid societies covering all 88 counties of Ohio handled more than 70,000 cases. According to the Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation’s 2010 Annual Report, legal aid societies helped more than 164,000 low-income individuals and families with cases such as child custody, housing discrimination and employment rights. The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland has seen a 14 percent increase in intake since 2008, with the largest area of increase in foreclosures. “The reality is that if we had more people to answer the phone, and if we had our phone lines open 24 hours, we would see that intake double or triple,” said Executive Director Colleen Cotter.

Mortgage nightmares
Gary and Kay Reisinger own a home in Pike County on 1.97 acres nestled between Piketon and Beaverton in southern Ohio. In 2008, the Reisingers turned to Southeastern Ohio Legal Services for help when their bank began foreclosure proceedings. They were able to save their home of eight years by negotiating a loan modification. Everything was settled, or so they thought. About a year later, the mortgage company started a new round of problems for the family. “It’s been a nightmare,” Mrs. Reisinger recalls. “We were constantly harassed to change our loan agreement, and they started rejecting our payment. We tried working with them but they wouldn’t cooperate.”

With no money to hire a lawyer, the Reisingers once again turned to legal aid for help. Melissa Benson, staff attorney at Southeastern Ohio Legal Services, worked on their case. “After months of negotiation, we’ve been able to work out a settlement that will allow the Reisingers to remain in their home with a mortgage payment that they can afford,” Benson said.

Betty Bright of Fairfield County understands what the Reisingers are going through. The U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) started foreclosure proceedings in 2008 against Bright on the loan for her home of 25 years. Bright remembers the shock when she received the notice of acceleration on the loan. “I sent a payment that somehow got lost and a few months later they foreclosed on me. They seemed ready to dump my loan.”

Disabled and unable to work, Bright knew she needed legal help but had no way to pay for it. Then, she remembered an article in the local newspaper about the legal aid society office in Lancaster. She took her notice of acceleration and knocked on Chuck Gordon’s door at Southeastern Ohio Legal Services.

“Our office went about appealing that for her, but the address the USDA included in the letter was incorrect and the appeal came back,” Gordon said. “That meant our appeal was not timely and the foreclosure process continued.”

Gordon adds the USDA admitted the address mistake and not only negotiated a settlement so that Bright could keep her home but also suspended foreclosures against 340 other homeowners nationwide who had received the incorrect address. As for the missing payment that prompted the foreclosure action, it finally showed up as credit on Bright’s account. “I was so overwhelmed when I first got that notice,” Bright said. “I am so glad I handed all this over to Mr. Gordon. He saved me.”

Domestic discord
Rosiland Pettaway of Toledo had been married 12 years when she decided to file for divorce. Pettaway, legally blind and unable to work, was concerned about her future since her husband was making minimum wage and the prospects of spousal support were dim. Lucinda Weller, an attorney at Legal Aid of Western Ohio, was assigned the case. “We took a holistic approach to Rosiland’s case,” Weller said. “In addition to handling the divorce, we found a group that helped her address some health issues and provide insurance for her eye surgery.”

Thanks to the surgery, Pettaway is able to see and work as a seamstress again to support herself. She gushes when she talks about what Weller did for her. “Ms. Weller helped me stay in my home. I think I would have been on the street or in a shelter because I wouldn’t have had any money. She also comforted me and boosted me up when I got down.”

Life-changing
Penny Hamilton’s life was spiraling out of control. Her abusive husband was controlling every aspect of her life, making her a prisoner in their home. “After seven years of marriage, I wasn’t allowed to work or go outside without my husband, and I couldn’t have 50 cents in my pocket.” Hamilton tried to leave, but held back when her husband threatened either suicide or harm to her two children and her mother. With her health failing and her children grown and out of the house, Hamilton knew the time had come for her to make a move.

She contacted Legal Aid of Western Ohio to get a protection order, and attorney Joseph Warden guided and encouraged her through the process and divorce. Warden chokes up when he talks about the case. “It was a very emotional case. I admire Penny’s extraordinary courage and strength she showed to do this. She was so trapped and victimized she didn’t know what to do, but today you see a different person in front of you.”

Hamilton credits Warden with saving her life. “Without him and legal aid, I would have spent the rest of my life in a bedroom very, very sick, but instead I am living a very full and productive life.”

Since the divorce, Hamilton’s health has improved—she has lost 90 pounds—and she has gone back to work in medical billing and as a college instructor. She also serves on the Legal Aid of Western Ohio Board of Trustees.

“I sometimes wonder why I had to go through all of this. Standing here today stronger than I have ever been in my life and helping others who are suffering through domestic violence—I am starting to see the purpose.”

The future of legal aid
As the demand for legal aid continues to increase, federal and state budget cuts have meant a decrease in funding. According to the Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation’s 2010 annual report, financial support for legal services in Ohio has dropped by approximately 77 percent between 2007 and 2010.1 Funding on the national level for the current fiscal year approved by Congress has been set at $348 million—more than $100 million less than the funding requested by the Obama Administration.

Legal Aid Society of Cleveland’s Colleen Cotter knows the reality of less funding means serving fewer people. “However, even in light of that difficult reality, I am confident that the legal aid societies are here to stay. We may for the near future be smaller than we have been, but we will be strong, and we will continue to provide high-quality legal assistance to our clients through difficult times.” Cotter calls on Ohio’s legal community to continue to assist legal aid societies by volunteering and providing financial support.

Siobhan Clovis of Reese Pyle Drake & Meyer PLL in Newark was a public defender before going into private practice. To continue to “champion for the underdog,” she volunteers for the Save the Dream project through the Southeastern Ohio Legal Services’ Newark office. “I feel volunteering for pro bono cases is something lawyers should do,” Clovis said. “We understand the complex laws of our society and it’s our responsibility to make sure people can navigate the legal system—particularly those who can’t otherwise afford an attorney.” (View video of Clovis explaining why she volunteers for pro bono work.)

Ohio State Bar Association President Carol Seubert Marx understands the sacrifice it takes to be a pro bono volunteer. “I want to personally thank our members who have committed their time and energy to staffing pro bono clinics, taking referrals from legal aid offices, saying yes when asked to participate in foreclosure hearings or participating in our statewide appellate district pro bono projects,” Marx said. “At a time when many of our members are having a difficult time meeting their own expenses, they continue to step up and provide free legal assistance for those in need.”

One area Marx hopes to address is the influx of pro se litigants. She says the OSBA Access to Justice Committee will look at ways to help courts deal with the influx and freeing up legal aid funds for the truly needy by redirecting clients that have the financial means away from legal aid to the private bar. “We have to be willing to think outside the box to address these serious issues that will continue to affect our judicial system, the citizens of Ohio and our profession for years to come.”

For volunteer opportunities, go to www.ohioprobono.org, a fully searchable directory by county, zip code, type of opportunity and subject area.

Stephanie Beougher is the OSBA communications and online media associate.

Endnotes

1 www.olaf.org/about-olaf/financials/. Last accessed Sept. 26, 2011.

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