Legal aid cut

After 33 years of providing free legal services for those who can least afford it, the Marietta office of Southeastern Ohio Legal Services will close next month, along with two other regional offices.

“We’ve tried really hard not to close any of the offices, but our board voted Saturday to close three offices in Marietta, Lancaster and Zanesville,” said Robin Bozian, managing attorney for the Marietta legal aid facility.

She said the local offices have been struggling financially for the last few years.

“Basically we’ve had a steady 40 percent reduction in funding since 2008, and there has been no increase in revenue,” Bozian said, noting that the annual cost to operate the Marietta office is around $400,000.

Funding from the federal and state governments for SEOLS has dropped by $3.1 million since 2008, and this year’s sequester of funds by the federal government hasn’t helped.

“Sequestration took 10 percent out of the Legal Services Corporation that’s funded by Congress,” Bozian said. The corporation, headed by an 11-member bipartisan board of directors appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, is the largest funder of legal services for low-income households in the country.

She said the Legal Services Corporation funding represents 37 percent of the Ohio State Legal Assistance Foundation’s budget. The foundation is the parent organization for the SEOLS.

Low interest rates have also impacted SEOLS funding, as a large percentage of support comes from interest on attorneys’ client trust accounts.

“By law attorneys can’t make money on those trust accounts, so the interest is paid into an Ohio State Legal Association fund that’s administered to legal services offices throughout the state,” Bozian explained.

She said low interest rates on those accounts have translated to a 50 to 60 percent reduction in that source of funding.

In addition court filing fees that help fund the legal aid services are down as fewer people are filing due to difficult economic times.

Bozian said interest on the trust accounts and filing fees used to provide 60 percent of the legal assistance foundation budget, but now only funds 44 percent of the budget.

Nineteen percent of the foundation’s budget comes through specialized grants like senior citizens or domestic violence grant funding.

The Marietta office handles an average of around 1,000 cases a year, Bozian said, noting that number may vary slightly from year to year. In 2009 the office assisted 980 families. Last year the total was 1,141, and as of Wednesday 1,088 people had received legal assistance in 2013.

“This is a tough pill for us, but I’m more concerned for our clients,” she said.

Family and domestic issues made up the largest portion (428) of the local office’s legal cases in 2012, followed by 259 cases related to housing, including foreclosures.

Bozian, who has been with the Marietta office since it opened, will transfer to the Athens SEOLS office next month. The two office secretaries will be laid off, and Robert Henry, the only other attorney in the local office, is going into private practice.

Monthly legal clinics will continue in Marietta, but those, too, are likely to be impacted by the office closure, according to local attorney Rhonda Mears, a member of the Ohio State Legal Services Association Board.

“I’ve been a regular volunteer at the legal clinics, and Robin’s office has always supported the clinics with materials, record-keeping, reporting, and staff to assist with clients,” she said. “And I expect the number of people seeking help at the legal clinics will increase when the office closes.”

The clinics are held from 6 to 8 p.m. the third Wednesday of every month, except December, at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 320 Second St.

“We often see more than 20 clients during the clinics,” Mears said. “There are usually three or four attorneys who volunteer, but we can always use more.”

An increase of clients could result in case overload for the clinics.

“I’m concerned that the clinics may not be sufficient, and that there may be a lack of resources that have been available through the local SEOLS office to this point,” Mears added.

Washington County Common Pleas Judge Ed Lane said closure of the legal aid office would also have some impact on the county and city court system.

“The biggest impact on us would be from people facing foreclosures on their homes,” he said. “There are reams of technical paperwork required to save homes from foreclosure, and the average layperson wouldn’t be able to get through it alone.”

Lane said the SEOLS office plays a large role in helping those who can’t otherwise afford legal services.

“There are many people who may have lost their jobs and are just trying to get back on their feet,” he said.

Bozian said clients of the Marietta office won’t be dropped, but services will now be handled through the Athens SEOLS office.

“The Marietta office serves Washington, Morgan, Monroe and Noble counties,” she said. “Clients from Washington, Morgan and Noble counties will be served out of the Athens office (800-686-3669).”

After Jan. 31 clients from Monroe County will be served from the Steubenville SEOLS office that may be contacted at 800-837-4781.

Bozian said applicants may also contact the remaining six SEOLS offices through the organization’s website, www.seols.org and clicking on “Request for Services Online.”

She said technology has made it much easier for SEOLS to help clients, and many cases can now be handled over the phone and Internet.