About Snohomish County Legal Services
Statement of Purpose |
The Need |
Did You Know |
Addressing the Need |
Full Legal Representation |
Unbundled Legal Services |
Advice and Counsel |
Brief Services |
Snohomish County Legal Services is a free legal aid program serving Snohomish County residents experiencing poverty. Our staff, pro bono attorneys and volunteers provide information, advice and legal representation to ensure meaningful access to justice regardless of individual barriers and needs.
Snohomish County has a low-income population in excess of 44,000, larger than the entire population of many of Washington's 39 counties. National studies have shown that poverty is likely to increase a person's need for legal assistance and is more likely to concern the essentials of living, i.e. adequate income, food, shelter, and protection of the family unit. The Legal Foundation of Washington, a major source of funding for legal services programs, estimates that four-fifths of eligible cases must be turned away by civil legal services programs because of inadequate resources. The Washington State Supreme Court set up a task force to answer important questions about meaningful access to the civil justice system for people who are poor and vulnerable. The legal needs study, released in September of 2003, notes these important findings:
- More than three quarters of low income households experience at least one important civil legal problem annually.
- Of those who experience civil legal problems, more than 85% of the time these persons receive no legal assistance of any kind. Nine out of 10 low-income people who do not get attorney assistance receive no help at all with their legal issues.
- Civil legal problems experienced by low income people in Washington generally affect basic human needs such as housing, family safety and security and public safety.
- Civil legal needs are disproportionately experienced by women, children and members of vulnerable population groups.
- For many thousands of low-income families, basic promises guaranteed them under the laws of this state Ð promises to personal and family safety and security, fair treatment by landlords, employers, and creditors, and fair and proper treatment by governmental agencies - are unenforceable because they cannot secure the legal representation needed to effectively assert, defend or enforce these promises.
Snohomish County Legal Services' (SCLS) clients are faced with problems associated with living in poverty and need legal assistance to solve many of these problems which affect their family's stability. The Statewide Access to Justice Board has identified numerous barriers that the low-income community faces regarding access to the civil justice system: communication barriers (language, literacy, disability, cultural considerations, technology); isolation barriers (geography, institutionalization, disability); lack of knowledge about legal services, failure to identify problem as "legal" problem; and barriers internal to the system.
Each year, over 600 low income people in Snohomish County receive help from the staff and volunteers of SCLS. Annually, volunteers give a total of over 5,000 hours of advice, pro se assistance and full legal representation.
Volunteer attorneys work with SCLS to represent those most in need of full representation. Our family law staff attorney provides full legal representation to victims of domestic violence in protection order and family law cases (dissolution, legal separation, and paternity). Many of her cases include special circumstances, such as a client is who has limited or no English speak, has physical or mental disabilities, where the opposing party is represented by counsel, and/or where there is risk to the children involved. We have seen a significant increase in the number of non-English speaking clients in the last two years and anticipate that this trend will continue. Because of the increased time involved in assisting these clients, our practice is to have staff represent them rather than a volunteer attorney. However, some of our volunteers do accept non-English speaking clients, and we assist with the cost of interpretation. Volunteers taking family law cases have the opportunity to be matched with an experienced family law attorney for mentoring.
In addition to family law referrals, there are volunteer opportunities to represent clients bankruptcy, contract disputes, housing disputes other than eviction, guardianships, license revocations and consumer problems.
Volunteers who represent clients through SCLS help meet the client's legal needs and gain self-sufficiency and stability through assistance with family law actions to dissolve dysfunctional marriages, establish child support and obtain spousal maintenance for education and training, through bankruptcy actions to obtain debtor-creditor relief, and through assistance with landlord-tenant problems or other actions such as preparation of wills and durable powers of attorney.
Our family law staff attorney provides emergency legal services to victims of domestic violence through entry of protection orders and emergency temporary orders in family law matters. The client is then referred to a volunteer attorney for further representation after entry of temporary orders. In some instances, particularly where significant resources are required such as interpreter fees, our staff attorney continues to represent the client through trial.
Our non-family law staff attorney also provides unbundled legal services in some landlord-tenant, consumer, and administrative cases, representing clients at hearings, negotiating with opposing counsel or writing letters on behalf of the client.
When our volunteer attorneys accept cases for limited legal representation, it has been helpful under those circumstances for our clients to have any urgent issues resolved so that their legal situation is stabilized. Volunteer attorneys may agree to represent the client through a hearing for temporary orders, for instance, and then the client may come back to us for further pro se assistance or referral as appropriate.
Many of our clients are able to proceed on their own once they have met with an attorney and have been given legal advice and procedural direction. Clients who do proceed pro se are encouraged to return for review of the documents they plan to file and continuing assessment of the case for appropriateness and availability of referral. We also provide our clients with information about community resources that will help them with problems associated with their presenting legal problem. These referrals include referrals for emergency or shelter housing, mental health services, respite care, volunteer dental services, low or no cost parenting classes, domestic violence support groups and drug and alcohol evaluation and treatment.
Each week, three volunteer attorneys staff our Family Law Advice Clinic and provide legal advice, review pro se-prepared documents, and assist clients with preparation of motions and other court documents during a 45-60 minute evening appointment with each client. Although the majority of the work done by volunteer attorneys at the Family Law Advice Clinic is advice and counsel, the volunteer attorneys may on occasion use the clinic time to provide brief services by drafting legal documents or letters for the client at the clinic. When volunteer paralegals are available, they may prepare pleadings with the client which are then reviewed by the volunteer attorneys. We will continue to offer this clinic, which is fully booked on a regular basis. Occasionally, because we are so fully booked, the staff attorneys and director schedule a day time clinic to deal with the backlog of persons waiting for regular clinic appointments.
Our bankruptcy clinic is held on a monthly basis and is staffed by our non-family law attorney and a volunteer attorney. Prior to the clinic night, clients pick up the Chapter 7 bankruptcy forms and view a 30 minute informational video tape. A volunteer attorney teaches a 45 minute bankruptcy class at the clinic during which many of the basic questions are answered. Clinic attendees meet with volunteer attorneys individually for a 20 to 30 minute session. This model allows clients to have general questions answered in an efficient manner and the attorney consultation then can focus on the individual client's unique circumstances and questions. Clients whose Chapter 7 involves complex issues are referred for full direct representation by a qualified volunteer attorney.
The Housing Justice Project provides a combination of counsel and advice and brief services. Two Housing Justice Project volunteer attorneys are available at the courthouse every Tuesday and Wednesday to assist qualified clients on the unlawful detainer calendar. These clients are interviewed and if they have legal defenses to the eviction, volunteer attorneys enter limited notices of appearance and represent the clients on the calendar that day if the client so desires. Volunteer attorneys attempt to negotiate settlements for those clients without legal defenses. Cases set for expedited trial are referred to volunteer attorneys for direct representation. The Housing Justice Project was piloted in 2003 in Snohomish County and we hope to expand the program to four days per week so that attorneys are available on all of the civil calendar motions days in court.
We have extensive materials, both written and on videotape, for attorneys who wish to volunteer in the Housing Justice Project. With this training, many attorneys who do not practice in the Landlord/Tenant arena have been able to successfully advocate for clients after completing this training.
SCLS provides malpractice insurance for volunteer attorneys for cases referred by our organization. We also provide free training and access to our mentorship program.
SCLS has been approved to provide training through the CLE program which allows attorneys to earn free CLE credits for training and for the pro bono work they do through SCLS.
SCLS is sponsored by our local bar association. Bar members are encouraged to participate in pro bono work. Our judges and commissioners support the work of SCLS and appreciate the private bar's willingness to volunteer.
Volunteers have the chance to make a difference in the lives of people who may otherwise have no effective means of securing their legal rights.