07/29/07 — Legal Aid still faces high need, low funds

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Legal Aid still faces high need, low funds

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on July 29, 2007 2:01 AM

With more than 15,000 Wayne County residents living at 100 percent of the federal poverty level and another 22,000 also eligible for legal services from Legal Aid North Carolina, the agency's resources are being pushed to the limit.

And just like across the rest of the state, many are going unserved.

"For every two clients we reach, we turn away another seven or eight because of a lack of resources," said George Hausen Jr., executive director of Legal Aid N.C.

And in Wayne County, he added, the ratio is about the same -- as are the problems.

Many of those poor clients looking for representation are facing landlord/tenant issues, foreclosure threats and credit, Social Security, unemployment, disability or food stamp problems. A large percentage also need help working through problems surrounding domestic violence cases such as custody issues, protective orders and other family matters.

Legal Aid does not, however, provide assistance on criminal cases.

The focus of its 125 full-time lawyers is on civil matters, where legal representation often is unavailable to those people living in poverty.

"It's an issue of access to justice. In the legal system, people are most successful in securing their rights if they have access to a lawyer," said Goldsboro attorney and chairman of the Legal Aid Board of Directors Glenn Barfield. "Our first goal is to ensure equal access to the justice system. Our clients are not, by and large, people on the public dole, but we are part of a safety net.

"We're trying to remove the legal barriers that exist out there to economic opportunity."

In Goldsboro, the office on William Street is staffed by three paralegals every day, with lawyers available Tuesday and Thursday. Appointments, however, must be made through the regional office in Wilson -- 1-800-682-7902.

From Wayne County there are currently 254 active cases. Over the course of the year, Hausen said, they will come close to 450.

The Goldsboro office also is the headquarters for dealing with foreclosure cases across the state, and for dealing with domestic violence issues in the Wilson region, which includes Nash, Edgecombe, Wilson, Wayne, Greene and Lenoir counties.

However, Barfield continued, there are many people in need of help who don't know services might be available.

"One of the things we struggle with is there are still people who don't know what we do and that we're available," Barfield said. "By the same token, though, we don't have enough money to serve all the people who are eligible.

"We're a long way from where we need to be, but the more people who come in, the more compelling our argument for funding."

And right now that's Legal Aid's biggest challenge -- finding funding.

Currently about half of the agency's budget comes from the federal government. The rest comes from the state, grants and lawyer and private donations. The nonprofit group also is about to undertake a three-year $1 million fundraising campaign -- including here in Goldsboro.