SOUTH BEND — Low-income residents will be able to get free help for civil law issues through a new monthly clinic in Pacific County.
Thurston County Volunteer Legal Services is starting a civil law clinic at the Pacific County Courthouse with the help of local attorneys. The clinic gives people a chance to work one-on-one with attorneys. Those attorneys help participants gather and complete paperwork as well as help them understand how to move their cases forward.
“They can go into the courtroom confident,” said Rachael Langen Lundmark, executive director for Thurston County Volunteer Legal Services.
The attorneys primarily help attendees with family civil law issues, as about three-quarters of people who go to family court represent themselves, Langen Lundmark said. The number of legal problems per household nearly tripled between 2014 and 2003, according to a 2015 Washington State Civil Legal Needs study. About 76 percent of people with legal problems don’t get the help they need, the study showed.
Since the clinic began about 25 individuals have gotten legal help. At least one client was able to finish the work needed on their case.
Already having an effect
The clinic is already having an effect in the courtroom as cases move forward faster, said Donald Richter, Superior Court judge for Pacific and Wahkiakum counties.
“It used to be routine for us to work through the lunch hour on the family docket,” Richter said. “We’re wrapping up a lot more efficiently. People are better prepared, ready to go and less scared.”
Not only are cases moving forward faster than before, they are producing better outcomes, Richter said. And when the people appearing before him are more self-assured, it makes Richter more confident in his judgements.
“It’s a big deal for the courts when people are doing the procedures right,” Langen Lundmark said.
The clinic can at least help them with that, Langen Lundmark said. The clinic does not provide people with an attorney to represent them.
“We’re mostly here for advice,” Langen Lundmark said.
The volunteer attorneys can give participants specific and direct feedback. The goal is to give people equal access to the courts, said Jami Haslam, a program volunteer.
“Most people have been returning clients,” Langen Lundmark said. “The great thing is we’re seeing people through the legal process. A lot of times, my fear is we see people once and they get overwhelmed.”
The clinic can also help people with cases involving consumer financial cases and housing. In Washington state, seven in 10 low-income households face at least one “significant civil legal problem each year,” according to the civil needs study. Of those who said they had at least one civil case, 37.6 percent reported their cases involved a problem in the consumer, financial services and credit area. Many low-income Washingtonians don’t realize there are legal solutions to these problems because they can’t afford an attorney, according to the study.
“The cost of legal services is a problem,” Richter said. “Costs keep going up.”
By helping people get the proper paperwork and information for the court to make a decision, people will be able to stabilize their lives quicker, Richter said.
“Hopefully they feel justice was more accessible to them,” Richter said.
How the clinic came about
The clinic was brought to Pacific County through a partnership between Richter, Langen Lundmark, Jami Haslam and her husband, Pacific County Deputy Prosecutor Ben Haslam.
The Haslams moved to Pacific County in October after Ben was offered a position in Prosecutor Mark McClain’s office. Both Ben and Jamie have worked as attorneys. Ben worked for Snohomish Legal Services in Everett and Jamie for the Northwest Justice Project.
The clinic’s volunteer attorneys include the Haslams, Ilwaco attorney Jonathan Quittner, South Bend attorney Will Penoyar and Northwest Justice Project attorney Derek Peterson.
The monthly program is one of 15 hosted by Thurston County Volunteer Legal Services throughout Southwest Washington.
The program held its fourth clinic in Pacific County on Aug. 29. Clinics will happen on the last Thursday of each month at the Pacific County Courthouse, 300 Memorial Drive in South Bend.