Community Legal Aid Pilot Program Provides Virtual Legal Assistance in Wayne County

December 31, 2018

A new collaboration between Akron's Community Legal Aid and Community Action of Wayne and Medina Counties will aid both groups in serving the legal needs of residents without an attorney being physically present.

Community Action has set up a virtual office at its Wooster location to connect low-income Wooster citizens seeking legal help with legal aid attorneys, allowing typical consultations and assistance with legal documents to be addressed.

The one-year pilot project is another way for Community Legal Aid — which focuses on much more than Akron with the eight counties it serves — to help more people as its resources are continuously stretched thin.

"When our offices merged several years ago, it really left this void in Wayne County," said Steven McGarrity, executive director of Community Legal Aid, in a statement. "We still have an outreach center in downtown Wooster where we can meet clients, but a lot of people don't even know that's there. And really, it's just not the same as having full-time attorneys working here year-round."

Akron's legal aid group has a current budget of $5.52 million, which is largely donor-supported. Roughly 32% of that (about $1.7 million) is provided by the Legal Services Corp., which had been marked for defunding by President Donald Trump in 2017 and 2018. Bipartisan support has preserved that funding, but the funding overall has remained flat despite needs greatly outpacing resources. Legal aid groups in Cleveland and Akron usually turn away about half of all people seeking assistance.

Like other areas, lack of resources has prevented Community Legal Aid from addressing needs in Wayne County to the extent it wants to.

"It's an issue we've been searching for ways to address for years, and not just here," McGarrity said. "But what's great about Wayne County is the amazing partnerships and people's willingness to help us bridge that gap. It wouldn't have been possible without Community Action, or other groups like United Way."

There is no financial component associated with the virtual legal assistance. But the partnership with United Way, which is regularly a legal aid supporter, helped make the new program possible.

"Because affordable housing is in short supply, many low-income families simply do not have the resources to make ends meet," said Todd Jasin, executive director of United Way of Wayne and Holmes counties, in a statement. "As a valuable partner provider of United Way, Legal Aid's video-based services are an innovative way to meet people's legal needs, including reducing unlawful evictions. We are proud to call Community Legal Aid a partner."

In terms of how the program works, "It's literally as simple as sitting down and saying a few words to a computer screen," said legal aid intake supervisor Dawn Spriggs.

"Many times, lack of resources compound challenges for the families we serve," added Melissa Pearce, executive director of Community Action, in a statement. "Navigating the legal system can be especially daunting. Access to free legal guidance will assist people in making informed decisions, increase household stability and relieve stress. It's great to be able to partner with Community Legal Aid in this way."

It's hoped the program goes well and becomes a routine offering for legal aid. It also helps spread awareness of the group as it seeks out volunteers and donors. If it goes well, the program may be extended to other areas where there are no physical legal aid locations, like Medina, Columbiana and Portage counties.

The virtual office is also another way Community Legal Aid is trying to serve residents in innovative ways with its current resources. The nonprofit is also in the midst of a pilot program with startup firm Upsolve designed to streamline the bankruptcy process for its clients, which is expected will help attorneys serve more people.

"Any tool I can use that lets me competently and ethically solve someone's legal problems, I'm willing to give it a try," McGarrity told Crain's. "We will know in a year if it really works. But I think it's too important for the number of people we could help to pass up the opportunity."

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