Cedric James wanted to heed the adage “don’t go into a courtroom alone,” but he was short on money and thought he’d have to handle his child custody case without a lawyer.
So it was sheer luck that James happened upon a clerk in Wayne County Circuit Court who directed him to a free legal aid clinic, helping him win custody of his two young daughters last month.
James, a 54-year-old military veteran and Detroit resident, said he was able to free the girls from an abusive environment with help from a pro bono attorney from the Booth Legal Aid Clinic.
“Emotionally, they took the stress off me,” James said. “The cost of paying (a private attorney), you may be mortgaging your home.”
From assisting parents in custody disputes to helping low-income homeowners stave off foreclosure, area law clinics are ramping up their efforts to assist Metro Detroiters who can’t afford attorneys as demand increases. The cost of hiring an attorney for a custody case could runs in the thousands of dollars, said attorneys helping James. Typically, lawyers can charge $500 an hour in legal fees for such cases.
Across the country, about 90 percent of poor clients with child custody or landlord/tenant eviction cases go into a courtroom with no representation, said Jim Sandman, the president of the Legal Services Corp., a national nonprofit that funds legal aid clinics throughout the United States.
“The numbers (of people) without counsel is astonishingly common,” he said. “There are not enough resources sufficient to help everyone.”
Sandman said his organization, which is funded with federal dollars, wants to ensure there is a “fundamental equal justice and an equal, level playing field.” Legal Services Corp. gets $385 million in annual funding from Congress, according to the organization, which provides free legal help to 1.8 million people a year.
Amy Roemer, the director of the Salvation Army’s William Booth Legal Aid Clinic, said there is a huge need in Metro Detroit for help and it’s growing so much that the legal clinic is expanding hours at its location in Wayne County Circuit Court’s civil division in the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center.
Beginning in January, lawyers will be available every week to help low-income clients needing legal help in the courtroom, up from three times a month.
Lawyers with the Booth Law Clinic, which has two local offices, assist needy clients with civil cases only. Their services range from helping with child custody matters to traffic offenses that have led to license suspensions. Booth attorneys handle up to 2,000 pro bono cases a year, said Roemer.
“We are out in the community doing our best,” she said. “We see anyone with any legal issue except for bankruptcy. We refer clients (needing bankruptcy help) so they don’t leave without help.”
The bankruptcy court has free programs that assist low-income clients, Roemer said.
The Booth Legal Aid Clinic is funded through the Salvation Army, she said. It was recently recognized by the national office of the Salvation Army for its efforts and for being the only free law clinic operated by the organization in the U.S. If the three Booth attorneys can’t help a client, the legal aid clinic finds another that will help.
Later this month, the Booth clinic is partnering with the Wayne County Friend of the Court to conduct a free child support help program from 1-4 p.m. Oct. 21 at the Detroit Public Library, 5201 Woodward.
The workshop will include a bench warrant amnesty program for Wayne and Macomb County residents so they can get caught up on payments.
Other free law clinics are expanding their services as well.
Lakeshore Legal Aid received a $4 million grant last year from the Legal Services Corp., allowing the organization to extend its reach to poor clients in Metro Detroit. Officials expect to serve 13,500 clients in the next year at free legal aid clinics, some of them newly opened, in eight local communities.
Lakeshore also has offices in St. Clair and Tuscola counties, said its chief executive officer, Ashley Lowe.
In the past year and a half, Lakeshore handled 1,700 cases for low-income Metro Detroiters.
“We are trying to meet the need and the need is great,” Lowe said.
The organization offers free legal help in civil cases giving clients the opportunity to “advocate their rights,” she said.
“People don’t know about these rights,” Lowe added.
While legal aid clinics can help expunge criminal offenses from an individual’s record, they do not handle criminal cases. Low-income defendants who need criminal representation are provided a court-appointed attorney.
Earlier this year, there was concern that President Donald Trump would strip away funding for the Legal Services Corp.
American Bar Association president Linda Klein expressed alarm when funding cuts were proposed by the White House.
“The American Bar Association is outraged that the administration proposes to eliminate funding for the Legal Services Corporation in its budget and calls on every member of Congress to restore full funding,” Klein said in March. “LSC provides civil legal aid to people who desperately need help to navigate the legal process. Without this assistance, courthouse doors will slam in the faces of millions of Americans, denying them equal access to justice.”
Cecil Chatmon, a Taylor truck driver, said he was thankful for free legal help through Booth when he fought to gain custody of his 17-year-old son.
“I tried to do it on my own but the paperwork was so confusing,” said Chatmon, 39. “I wouldn’t have been able to pay for it out of my pocket.”
Chatmon worked with Booth attorney Rebekah White and University of Detroit Mercy law school student Rachel Ratton in winning custody of his teen son.
“If I didn’t have (free legal help), three lives would be different (now),” he said.