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VOL. 117 | NO. 104 | Thursday, May 29, 2003

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Local centers help low-income, pro se litigants get dough

Local centers give low-income litigants legal help


Special to The Daily News

The Community Legal Center and Memphis Area Legal Services both of which provide low-income and pro se litigants with pro bono legal representation, as well as referrals are keeping busy these days, and demand for their services is growing.

"We've had as much business in the first three months of this year as we did in the last six months of last year," said CLC executive director Meg Jones.

In March alone, CLC gave eight people legal advice, referred 131 to attorneys and closed 13 cases.

To bolster their ability to continue offering pro bono legal representation, MALS and CLC received Tennessee Bar Foundation grants for the coming year. CLC garnered a $20,000 grant, while MALS Pro Bono was given $12,579.

The grants were part of $760,000 awarded statewide through TBFs Interest On Lawyers Trust Accounts, or IOLTA, program.

CLC was founded in 1993 by the Association of Women Attorneys to address a need for accessible legal resources for low-income clients. Before the agency which began as the AWA Family Mediation Center, opened its doors the "working poor" had few places to turn for legal assistance.

After opening CLC as a resource designed to provide divorce attorneys and mediators to low-income women, the founders realized there was greater demand for legal representation than for mediation among its clients, about 75 percent of whom are women and all of whom are low-income, meaning they have jobs but earn minimum wage or slightly above and are supporting families.

"Many of our clients have gotten off of welfare by going through the Families First program (Tennessees welfare reform program)," Jones said.

CLC handles a wide range of civil cases, including family law, landlord/tenant disputes and consumer cases, and also helps clients with wills and probates.

Also designed to provide legal help for the citys low-income population, Memphis Area Legal Services originated in 1970, founded by a group of attorneys who recognized an overwhelming need for legal services among the poor.

The agency is similar to CLC in that it handles civil cases. MALS helps people facing evictions, as well as victims of predatory lending, domestic violence and fraudulent business practices. The group also helps clients in cases of housing discrimination.

The two agencies differ, however, in the clients they serve.

While MALS helps citizens with incomes of up to 125 percent of the federal poverty level, CLC serves people with incomes between 125 percent and 175 percent of federal poverty guidelines, attempting to fill the gap between cases MALS takes and clients who can afford legal representation.

In the past two years, MALS has served about 8,000 people. In 2002, 75 percent of the agencys clients were women, many with children. In addition, 21 percent were elderly, and 75 percent were African-American.

MALS and CLC not only offer legal representation and advice, but also hold educational clinics and seminars. For instance, MALS hosts a University of Memphis legal clinic presented by third-year law students, who work with the impoverished to provide legal advice and services.

CLC holds seminars and speaks to nonprofit groups on topics including wills, consumer issues, divorce and landlord/tenant issues.

MALS employs several staff attorneys, including a litigation director and leaders of the agencys domestic violence, elder law and housing units. About 200 pro bono attorneys are involved with the CLC, including 18 attorneys who hold seats on the board.

CLC staff attorney Laurie Neale said she finds her work rewarding.

I've always done public service, she said. Even when I started law school, I knew I wanted to do public law.

The future holds a variety of opportunities for members of the legal community who want to make a career helping others.

We've got a new program with the public defender helping ex-offenders get their citizenship rights back," Jones said.

CLC also wants to establish a pro se clinic to help women file for divorces without an attorney, a plan the agency hopes to implement by the fall.

PROPERTY SALES 62 288 2,619
MORTGAGES 52 197 1,783