June 18, 2018
A 29-year-old mother seeking asylum for herself and her two young children after witnessing a gang-related murder and receiving death threats in her native Honduras. An Oct. 1 victim worried about possible wage garnishment over money she owes to a cosmetology school that refused to defer her enrollment after the mass shooting, which left her out of work for seven months. A man who wants to establish a custody order with his ex-girlfriend because she is not allowing him to see their 5-year-old.
These are three of the dozens of people on the waitlist at Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, which celebrates its 60th anniversary Tuesday.
The center’s executive director is former Nevada Assemblywoman Barbara Buckley, the first woman in Nevada history to serve as Assembly Speaker. With 43 staff attorneys and approximately 1,000 volunteer ones, the nonprofit is able to provide free attorney representation in civil cases for thousands of low-income and vulnerable people each year. But they aren’t able to help everyone who needs it.
Buckley wishes they could.
“We’re proud of our first 60 years, especially the last 10 years,” she says. “(We’ve seen) tremendous growth, but the need is so overwhelming.”
Knowing this reality, Legal Aid Center is trying to maximize its impact. The nonprofit is undergoing a major fundraising campaign to raise $15 million by 2020, as well as working on several resources that should make it easier for people to handle legal issues on their own.
More than 700,000 Clark County residents live at or below 200 percent of the poverty level — the threshold to qualify for services at Legal Aid Center. That’s 36 percent of the population.
Attorney-client privilege prohibits the center from sharing many of its success stories, but Buckley says many of the high-profile cases involving domestic violence and child abuse that have been reported by news outlets wind up on their desks. And their waitlist further offers a sampling of the types of clients they take on: abused and neglected children, battered women, immigrants facing deportation, and elderly people who’ve been financially exploited.
“If you’re accused of a crime, you get a lawyer but what if you’ve done nothing wrong?” asks Buckley. “What if you’re the victim?”
The answer to that question is grim: You need to either find the money to hire a lawyer or represent yourself in what can be a complicated and intimidating court system.
In 2007, the state completed a legal needs assessment. Among its findings: Over two-thirds of low- to moderately low-income households experience significant civil legal problems that would ordinarily require at least some assistance from an attorney in order to resolve them. In family court, for example, an overwhelming majority of people are representing themselves.
That year, Legal Aid Center served 13,544 people. In 2017, they served more than 130,061 through direct representation and other services.
Buckley says the unmet need for pro bono lawyers in Nevada is still tremendous.
Fueling that demand has been a demographic shift in the state that includes more seniors and immigrant families. The real estate bubble burst a decade ago also ushered in a huge demand for legal assistance on foreclosures-related issues, though it has since slowed. Since the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival last October, Legal Aid Center has assisted survivors in legal issues, including lost wages, insurance disputes and financial-scam issues.
Last year, the Nevada Legislature mandated that every minor going through the foster care system receive legal representation. That task that in Southern Nevada falls to Legal Aid Center’s Children’s Attorneys Project, which currently represents 85 percent of minors in the system and is on track to represent 100 percent of them by the end of this year.
Legal Aid has set its own goal to represent all elderly people facing guardianship issues. The center currently represents 800 of the 3,400 of those cases.
An updated statewide legal needs assessment was recently completed and is now in the process of being finalized. It is expected to be released next month.
In hopes of ensuring sustainability and growth for the center in the decades to come, Legal Aid Center is in the process of establishing a $15 million endowment. Announced in September last year, the fund is being seeded by the Engelstad Family Foundation, which is donating $2 for every $1 donated, up to $5 million.
So far, $3.7 million has been donated. With the Engelstad match, that puts the endowment at $11.1 million currently.
The money will be used to sustain and expand its legal offerings. It will also be a safety net for the organization during any future turbulent times, such as another recession that might result in a drying up of donations or grant money.
In addition to offering direct representation for clients, Legal Aid Center operates assistance centers in family and justice courts and regularly holds informational classes on legal topics, including immigration, paternity and custody, and small claims court. One of their newest classes is a class on payday and title loan issues, which lawyers at the center say are on the rise in Southern Nevada.
They are also in development of a smartphone app that would assist people in preparing documents or filling out forms. Think of it as TurboTax but for your legal documents instead of income tax.
While people can’t get professional legal advice through the assistance center or classes, they can get answers to questions about process — what needs to be filed, where to file it, what legal terms mean, etc. Such resources are the low-hanging fruit in the ongoing effort to help as many people as they can with limited resources.
“That’s our solution to the influx. We can’t represent all people, so here are 500 free legal forms, here are websites to try and explain the process for you,” adds Buckley. “We’re coming up with innovative projects to help as many people as possible.”