Legal Aid Works brings “justice for all” to civil court system
By Katie Fuster
“You have the right to remain silent,” it begins, and you probably know the rest by heart. After all, you’ve heard the Miranda warning on everything from Law & Order to the CSI series to 21 Jump Street. “Anything you say can and will be held against you in a court of law,” perps are told as they are cuffed. “You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.”
Even if you’ve never been on the wrong side of the law, you probably know these Miranda rights well enough to know that a court-appointed attorney will defend you, free of charge, in a criminal case. But what if you need legal aid in a civil matter? What if a creditor is harassing you at your workplace? What if your “ex” challenges you for custody of your children? What if you need a civil protective order to shield you from an abusive spouse? What then?
It might surprise you to learn that in this country, there is no right to a court-appointed attorney in civil justice cases. Because of this, no public funding exists to pay for public defenders for those who cannot afford their own representation.
“When you’re not represented, you are at a really big disadvantage,” says Ann H. Kloeckner, executive director of Legal Aid Works. “You could have the law on your side, you could have the facts on your side, and you could still get chewed up and spit out by the civil justice system simply because you don’t understand how to introduce a document into evidence, how to subpoena a witness, or how to cross-examine somebody.”
This is where Legal Aid Works, or LAW, comes in. LAW is a private nonprofit that exists “simply because it bugs us when people are treated differently simply because they’re poor. That’s not fair, it’s not right, and it’s not American. So we go in to level the playing field for people who are not able to afford their own lawyer in civil legal cases.” Formerly known as Rappahannock Legal Services, LAW has been serving our area since 1980.
To explain the sort of work LAW does, Kloeckner gives the hypothetical example of a woman trying to escape an abusive relationship. “In cases of domestic violence, everyone says, ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?’ Well, the first thing that she needs when she leaves is a civil protective order. That’s that ‘stay away’ order that people hear about.” It prevents offenders from coming near or contacting the protected person.
These orders are civil matters, Kloeckner explains, “so the judge will not appoint her a lawyer. She’ll walk into court asking for that civil protective order, but what if the offender shows up—which he is allowed to do, to tell his side of the story—and he has a lawyer?”
Kloeckner shakes her head. “The offender usually has control of more assets. So the woman in this scenario goes in not only against her abuser but against her abuser’s lawyer, and she has no attorney to level that playing field. That’s not fair, and it’s scary. It makes a lot of sense in explaining why a woman wouldn’t want to leave when she knows he’s the one with the resources, and he’s the one that’s going to be getting a lawyer, and his rights will be protected in court.”
LAW does not stand in the gap for victims of domestic violence alone. Kloeckner ticks off a list of other common issues LAW provides legal aid for. “We go in on custody cases, support cases, and housing cases to help people avoid illegal evictions. We help people avoid foreclosure when their mortgage company is not following the rules, and we help people deal with creditors who are not following the rules about debt collections. We help people with their public benefits issues, making sure their Medicare or Medicaid is calculated correctly.”
Tamara Moore joined LAW in 2007 and is the managing attorney of the Culpeper branch office. Her office serves five counties, including Fauquier. “Primarily I do family law: custody, visitation, spousal and child support, and protective orders. What I enjoy most is the educational aspect of my work,” she says. “We can go to court and get support orders, but if we can’t change behaviors, we’re just going to be back here in a month or two. If people know better, they do better. So if we can help people understand—things like, why is a judge ruling the way he’s ruling, why is your ex acting the way he’s acting, why are your kids acting the way they’re acting—they can then change their behaviors.”
LAW plugs into other area organizations to help with this educational aspect. In our area, Moore says, LAW taps into the expertise of SAFE (Services to Abused Families), the Fauquier domestic violence agencies, and Michele Arft, the domestic violence resource specialist at the Fauquier sheriff’s department.
“We’re lawyers,” Kloeckner says. “We’re not therapists or social workers. If people need counseling, housing, or supportive services, that’s the great caring that we can do with partners like the domestic violence shelters. We need them, they need us, and it’s a great partnership.”
Jessika Morris has been working for LAW for just four months, but her work, which is new to LAW, helps the nonprofit secure justice for impoverished abused spouses. “I handle divorce cases for victims of domestic violence,” Morris says.
“We had never done any divorces in-house before,” Kloeckner explains. “The only ones we could do were uncontested, simple divorces that we would ask private attorneys to help us with pro-bono. Now we can handle the divorces in-house for contested cases from our domestic violence caseload. Leading abused spouses right up to the edge of divorce, giving them protective orders and custody support, that was essential. It stabilized them for a little bit and protected them, but then that last step of a divorce that allowed them to move on was the piece that was missing. Imagine having one person dedicated to that in each of our three offices; it’s just a game-changer.”
Once Morris was hired, Moore began to call back abused spouses she had worked with on civil cases. “I will have cases where the husband and wife have separated, but they’re both on the title to the home, so the husband can come and go as he pleases,” Moore says. “The wife never feels safe in the home, and law enforcement can’t keep him out. He can come any time, day or night, take whatever he wants… this piece is huge. Domestic violence is about power and control,” Moore says. “If you can now obtain a divorce, imagine how much control you can take back of your own life.”
Kloeckner agrees. “Once that legal tie is severed, that’s when you can really move on in both a legal and an emotional way. It had been so frustrating before to not have the ability to handle divorce cases.”
LAW owes Morris’ position in part to SAVVI, the Sexual Assault Victim Volunteer Initiative. “It was a nonprofit started by a police officer in Warrenton who was seeing victims of sexual assault who weren’t getting services,” Kloeckner explains. “SAAVI became very difficult to sustain because it was a one hundred percent volunteer-driven organization, and they had to have people on call 24 hours a day. They stopped, but they had some money left over, and they donated it to us. We are using it as the required financial match to qualify for the grant [from the Victims of Crime Act] which will assist Jessika in helping more people. The money will allow us to get a bilingual paralegal to help her do her work. SAVVI was run by extraordinary people, and now their hard work is having another ripple, another butterfly wing flap.”
LAW’s staff is financially supported by a patchwork of 45 different funding sources. “About 50 percent of our funding is a collection of filing fees,” Kloeckner says. “Every time anyone in the Commonwealth of Virginia files a complaint in court, they have to pay a filing fee. A portion of that filing fee goes into a general fund that is administered by the Legal Services Corporation of Virginia, and they distribute it out to the nine different legal aid agencies in Virginia, based on poverty population.”
“In addition to the funds from filing fees, local governments are another source of funding for us, and we also get some grants from foundations that we apply for. We rely heavily on individual donors, and we have a fundraiser every year called Jazz for Justice in the Fredericksburg area,” Kloeckner says.
“We are so thankful to Fauquier County,” Moore says. “The attorneys are so responsive. If they know of somebody that needs legal aid, they send them our way. We get referrals from Fauquier attorneys, Michele Arft, the domestic violence agency, and social services all the time. Fauquier County is so supportive of what we do, and it goes a long, long way in helping the victims and our clients. Everybody out here is just amazing.”
Even with this level of support and its mélange of funding sources, LAW has to turn away many they would love to serve. “The statistic, all over the country, is that legal aid has to turn away two out of every three eligible cases simply because of a lack of resources,” Kloeckner says. It is an unfortunate reality of working in the nonprofit sector.
But if the idea of true “justice for all” stirs a fire in your belly, as it does for Kloeckner, Morris, Moore, and the rest of LAW’s staff, there are ways to support the nonprofit group. “We accept donations online, and we also have a fund at a community foundation that allows people to give gifts of land, art, stocks, and the like. Or you can call us and talk to us about other ways you can help. We know that some people have time, not money, to give to us.”
Just be forewarned that your volunteer work might change not just clients’ lives, but your own; both Morris and Moore switched career paths after interning at legal aid services. Only Kloeckner concedes to having gone to law school to do exactly what she’s doing now. “I truly enjoy filling a need that wouldn’t be met if I didn’t fill it,” she says. “I can honestly say that working with underserved populations is what gets me up in the morning.”
For more information on LAW visit their website www.legalaidworks.org.