Local Volunteer Attorney Services program provides critical access to justice for those in need
In terms of public esteem, attorneys and journalists tend to rank near the bottom of the professions, but I think our local attorneys, at least, get a bad rap. We are fortunate to have attorneys in our valley who value giving back to the community. Besides individuals who donate time to civic causes, there is also a highly effective nonprofit here — Chelan Douglas County Volunteer Attorney Services — dedicated to assisting people with limited financial means with civil legal issues. Last year, lawyers donated 600 hours of legal help to those in need.
On Monday, Washington Supreme Court Justice Steven Gonzalez will be the keynote speaker for the 23rd annual Law Day Awards and Benefit Lunch at the Wenatchee Convention Center. The event, which raises funds to support the Volunteer Attorney Services program, is sold out, with record-breaking attendance from attorneys, judges, community non-profit and business partners, and young leaders from Wenatchee High School.
Volunteer Attorney Services cases address civil matters only and about 70 percent of involve family law issues, Barshes told me. Often, women who are going through a divorce or custody battle reach out for help. Volyn pointed that while the Constitution guarantees the right to legal counsel for criminal cases, there is no such guarantee for civil cases. People with significant financial resources have a clear advantage and so organizations like Volunteer Attorney Services, the Northwest Justice Project, Columbia Valley Legal Services and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project provide access for those with limited means.
There is a common statewide legal intake system funded by the Legal Foundation of Washington, called CLEAR that provides those seeking help with a way to access the system. Volunteer Attorney Services has an attorney on staff, Emily Gale, who is the program’s Legal Case Manager. She manages the family law cases, providing critical continuity between legal consultations provided by volunteer attorneys, maximizing their advice and services. This past year, Barshes told me, 52 attorneys volunteered their services on civil matters that prevented evictions, discharged overwhelming medical debt, protected children and offered seniors on fixed income with wills and peace of mind in the final season of their lives.
Barshes, who has a background in systems thinking and nonprofit management, has found that clients come in frightened about what seem like life-and-death issues to them and they walk out with a greater sense of confidence and understanding about how best to advocate for themselves in court. “Being able to speak to an attorney just puts people at ease,” Barshes said. Volyn concurred. “I’m struck by the importance of allowing a person to be heard,” he said. Giving voice to the voiceless has a way of instilling hope and confidence. Volyn gives Barshes high marks for her organizational and leadership skills — a talent that eludes many attorneys, he said.
Volunteer Attorney Services facilitates legal consultations that provide an opportunity for individuals to present their situation and get advice about the best way to proceed. Sometimes, the case is so compelling, Volyn said, that an attorney and his or her firm may choose to take on more of the case, doing pro bono work on behalf of the client through their office.
Volyn also pointed out that something important happens when, as an attorney, “you remove the economic element from the relationship with the client.” He realizes that many clients who come through the Volunteer Attorney Service pipeline are in a situation through no fault of their own and that, but for his own good fortune in life, Volyn could see himself being in their shoes. It’s that sense of shared humanity that makes the Volunteer Attorney Service effort meaningful to the attorneys who donate time to the effort.
One issue that concerns Volyn is addressing human trafficking and slavery. Through his work at Volunteer Attorney Services, he has had personal experience with people who have been enslaved. “I’ve been enriched by learning about these lives and trying to help folks out who, again, would otherwise have no access.” This is what the spirit of community is all about: Each of us, in our own way, looking for opportunities to make a difference with the skills and talents that we have been blessed with.
To provide an hour worth of legal consultation for someone in need through Volunteer Attorney Services requires a nominal $25 contribution. If you would like to contribute to this worthy effort, access their web site cdcvas.org and click on the donate button.
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