Legal Assistance Center happily maxed out

May 7, 2011
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From 2008 through last year, individuals seeking help from the Legal Assistance Center in Grand Rapids rose by 10 percent annually in each of those three years. An increase in foot and phone traffic isn’t expected this year. But the LAC is still likely to direct about 16,000 residents — last year’s number — through what can often be a confusing maze for those who are not familiar with the legal system.

“In 2011, the numbers look like they are going to be pretty consistent with 2010. With the economic downturn in 2008, there was a dramatic increase in the number of folks we saw. So ’08, ’09 and ’10 were pretty steep curves, but it leveled off toward the end of 2010. We’re now seeing, on average, about a little over 1,200 people a month,” said Valerie Ambrose, LAC executive director, from her office in the Kent County Courthouse at 180 Ottawa Ave. NW.

“We’ll probably be close to about 15,000 — possibly more — on a walk-in basis, and then we have a couple of thousand folks we help through phone calls. So we’re still at that 16,000-plus number, but it’s not going to go away from that this year,” she added. “We’re pretty maxed out in terms of our staff and our space, but we’re delighted that we’re able to continue to meet the needs of that many folks.”

Most of those who seek advice from the LAC are county residents, although roughly 10 percent are from surrounding counties. A few more females contact the center than males, and whites use the service slightly more than minority races do.

But putting race and gender aside, there is one common trait that many share: More than six in 10 have annual incomes of $20,000 or less.

“A large number of the folks we serve are the working poor. These are people who are employed in part-time or minimum-wage positions, and their income just doesn’t allow them the luxury of hiring an attorney,” said Ambrose.

Nearly four of five who contact the center have concerns in the area of family law. Ambrose said these individuals are thinking about getting a divorce or have issues that revolve around their children.

“They may have lost their job and so they have questions about changes in child support. There might be visitation issues. People who have lost their jobs and now have employment in another state are wondering how they are going to be able to modify the visitation and custody concerns. So, a lot of it, again, is in direct relation to the economy,” said Ambrose.

The LAC doesn’t provide counseling on mortgage problems, foreclosures or bankruptcies, but it does refer those in need of that advice to the proper organizations. Nor does the center offer guidance on criminal issues or represent individuals in court, but it does offer assistance and self-help materials to individuals who want to represent themselves in court.

The LAC also refers people to the Legal Aid office and to the Grand Rapids Bar Association’s lawyers’ referral service, if they don’t qualify for Legal Aid. Some are referred to the Access to Justice Clinic at Cooley Law School.

The LAC staff and volunteers — who are largely law and paralegal students from Cooley, Davenport University and Grand Valley State University — also give patrons the required court forms and then make sure they’ve properly filled out the papers. Staff and volunteers also help them navigate through the system. Volunteers contribute about 120 hours each week and have helped the center reduce its overall expenses by 20 percent.

Once part of the bar association, the LAC became an independent nonprofit agency in 2005. The center’s budget this year is $171,887, which is down from 2008 when it was $212,000. But in-kind contributions to the LAC are expected to reach $98,100 this year.

Kent County is the center’s top revenue source. The county is providing $50,000 in cash for this fiscal year and an in-kind total of $61,000 for space in the county-owned courthouse and utility charges. Law firms and attorneys have given $28,000 in cash, and the bar association has contributed $15,000.

Besides the Great Recession, Ambrose said another reason the LAC has received more requests for assistance is because of word of mouth. Those who have been helped by the center are telling their friends, family members and colleagues what the LAC has done for them, and they, in turn, are contacting the center’s staff.

Ambrose said the courts also have directed those in need to the center.

“The judges and the referees are sending folks our way,” she said. Local attorneys account for about 13 percent of referrals to the LAC.

With the slowness of the economic recovery, the likelihood that the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit will be erased to help cover the governor’s proposed business tax cut, and with the area’s working poor making up roughly two-thirds of the LAC’s clients, chances are the number of people seeking help from the center won’t drop off anytime soon.

“I think it will exacerbate the legal concerns and just the daily-living challenges that people have. We haven’t had a discussion around that and I try not to step into the political arena,” said Ambrose of Lansing’s dialogue about the EITC. “But I think anytime there are challenging factors for folks with regard to income, the patrons we serve are immediately affected.”

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