The legal system can be a powerful tool for citizens to defend their rights and settle disputes, but the high price tag of most attorneys can make it impossible for some to ever have their day in court. 

legal aid
A client receives free assistance at the Washington, D.C., Archdiocesan Legal Network, a part of Catholic Charities. Photo courtesy of Catholic Charities.

As economic issues have made the cost of legal services an even greater hurdle, many are turning to Catholic groups for assistance. From housing and employment disputes to custody battles, legal aid ministries can provide advice and representation to those who cannot otherwise afford an attorney. 

Though some lawyers and firms take pro bono cases and provide free services, the Legal Services Corporation, a national network of legal aid offices, reports that on average one legal aid attorney is available for every 6,415 low-income people. As a result, courts — particularly those in housing and family cases — have reported significant increases in the number of unrepresented individuals. 

“Lawyers are so expensive, and it doesn’t take long to have your bill go beyond $1,000,” said James Bishop, senior program director of the Archdiocesan Legal Network, a program of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. “Many of our clients are working every day just to make ends meet. When they lose that paycheck or are in danger of losing it, and they have a legal issue, they are going to need help.”

Family practice

In the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Marie Kenyon finds that the greatest legal need is in the area of family law. Kenyon, who has served for nearly 25 years as director of Catholic Charities of St. Louis’ Catholic Legal Assistance Ministry, told Our Sunday Visitor that her office is inundated with requests for assistance in child custody, legal guardianship, child support and other family-based cases. 

“We handle anything having to do with the family; keeping the family together, keeping family members safe,” she said. “You can only imagine how many calls I get in a day.” 

The ministry runs like any law firm, Kenyon explained, helping clients through every stage of the process from filing paperwork to representation in the courtroom. Kenyon and her small staff of full- and part-time attorneys receive additional support from St. Louis University, which provides volunteer law students to assist with cases. 

Last year, the group was able to represent 1,253 clients, all of whom earn below the federal poverty line. Still, Kenyon regrets that the ministry does not have the resources to handle all cases that come to them and some clients must be turned away. 

“It is the thing that keeps me up at night,” she said. “When people say ‘If you can’t help me I have nowhere else to go,’ it is the truth. So that is for me one of the hardest pieces of this job, just to decide who we are going to help.”

Economic issues

In Washington, the Archdiocesan Legal Network has provided legal aid to the poor since 1989, handling a wide variety of cases dealing with family law, wills and probate, housing issues, and debt or bankruptcy. Bishop, who has been with the program since 1993, said that in recent years there has particularly been a demand in the area of debt, employment and housing foreclosure cases. 

James Bishop, senior program director of the Archdiocesan Legal Network.

“With the changes in the economy, many people who have lost their jobs are having trouble paying their credit card bills, and they need legal assistance,” Bishop told OSV. 

One common type of case, he said, is defending individuals who have lost their job and no longer have health insurance, which forces them to use credit cards for their medical expenses and quickly accumulate deep debt. The agency also frequently handles cases in which individuals were wrongfully terminated from their jobs, discriminated against in the workplace, or have been victims of predatory lenders and are in danger of losing their homes. 

They do not represent clients in criminal cases, nor do they become involved in class action lawsuits. Instead, Bishop said, the focus is on helping struggling individuals and families. 

“We are a part of the church’s social service arm, to be of service to those in need,” he said. 

In many cases, that means serving clients whose needs extend well beyond a single legal matter. 

As a part of Catholic Charities, they are able to direct clients who have much broader needs to the agency’s many other services and have a family case worker on staff to speak with clients about their other concerns. 

“We’ve found, particularly in these challenging times, that at Catholic Charities we’ve had to take more of a holistic approach to helping clients,” Bishop said. 

That holistic approach has also been adopted by institutions like St. Mary’s Medical Center in San Francisco, which provides a weekly clinic for patients who have legal issues that may be impacting their health, but who cannot afford to see an attorney. 

“Some of them can be specific (connections), where mold is exacerbating an asthma condition,” said Mary Rotunno, senior counsel for Dignity Health, a network of hospitals that includes St. Mary’s. “And some things are more general, where just the stress of their home is impacting their cardiovascular disease or blood pressure or mental health.” 

Since beginning the program less than two years ago, St. Mary’s has helped approximately 150 clients with 250 different legal issues. The most frequent relate to housing, Rotunno told OSV, and often the individual may not even be aware of the connection to their health problems. 

“The goal is to provide the underserved population access to legal assistance that will then help them to either address their health care needs or improve their health care outcomes,” she said.

Empowering the poor

Though legal aid ministries cannot guarantee a favorable outcome for their clients, Kenyon said that they do give individuals a chance to stand up for their rights. 

“Our job is not to decide who is going to win and then only take those cases,” she said. “We have to look at where can we have the most impact, and to help people feel like their voice was heard.” 

Regardless of the outcome, the experience can be life changing for the client. “It is a pretty aggressive way of empowering the poor,” Kenyon said.

Scott Alessi writes from Illinois.