Iowa non-profit provides legal service to the poor

When the indigent need legal help, there are not many resources of which they can avail themselves. Those without representation require extra time and attention, bogging down the courts and ultimately doing those without money for a lawyer a disservice.

Iowa Legal Aid is a non-profit with 10 regional offices across the state that helps alleviate this problem. Legal Aid provides free civil legal representation to the poor in all of Iowa’s 99 counties.

Sister Chris Feagan, with St. Mary’s Hispanic Ministry, sits on one of Legal Aid’s advisory boards. She said the group approached her when it realized how many people it serves that Feagan refers.

“It reaches a segment of the population that would have no recourse,” Feagan said. “They can’t afford an attorney. They don’t even know where to look for one.”

Legal Aid assists the indigent with a variety of civil issues ranging from employment disputes to income maintenance. But, the majority of cases are housing and family-related issues.

Feagan said a great deal of those people she refers to Legal Aid, usually through Mid-Iowa Community Action (MICA), are domestic assault victims.

Jim Kringlen, managing attorney for the Cedar Rapids regional office of Legal Aid, which handles cases in six counties including Marshall County, said his office often represents crime victims. He said domestic abuse cases comprise a large chunk of the cases Legal Aid sees. Family related cases, which domestic abuse incidents fall under, comprise 32 percent of Legal Aid cases, according to the group’s statistics.

“What we do in that context is represent the victim to a civil protective order,” Kringlen said. “A lot of times, the victim of abuse is immediately destitute. Very often it is the abuser who has the income or the lion’s share of it.”

To qualify for assistance through Legal Aid, clients must meet 125 percent of the federal poverty guideline. Nearly half a million Iowans are eligible to make use of Legal Aid’s services, according to Census data.

The group often handles cases that private lawyers will not handle, Kringlen said.

All 50 attorneys working for Legal Aid are licensed. More than 2,500 volunteer attorneys assist Legal Aid’s staff attorneys, providing more than $2 million worth of pro bono service each year.

Legal Aid’s lawyers are service-minded, and they have demonstrated a commitment to helping underprivileged people, Kringlen said.

“We know without our professional services many, many people would not get justice,” he said. “It is just not possible to navigate the court system without lawyers.”

Local attorney and Marshalltown City Council member Joel Greer, second ward, has volunteered for Legal Aid since 1978. He said working for Legal Aid gives him the opportunity to practice different types of law. The work is often rewarding, he said.

He recalls one instance where a woman who had a young child and was taking care of her sister needed to divorce her incarcerated husband. Greer said she went on to be a dental hygienist.

“It’s a great benefit for Iowans,” Greer said. “They have always had good lawyers who don’t care about the money I do not understand why younger lawyers aren’t volunteering.”

The entry level salary for a staff attorney is just over $40,000. According to an Iowa Legal Aid study, in 2011 Legal Aid turned away an estimated 15,000 families due to a lack of staff resources.

In addition to being a good cause, Greer said, volunteering with Legal Aid has afforded him to ability to choose which clients he offers his services to for free.

Legal Aid staff are available at MICA every other Thursday, but clients need not come in for services. Those wanting to make use of Legal Aid’s services can call 800-532-1275 from 9 to 11 a.m. and 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Staff is unavailable Thursday afternoons. To reach Legal Aid’s bilingual staff, call 800-272-0008 to get hold of a Spanish speaker.