CENTRALIA — Lewis County Bar Legal Aid, which provided legal services to low-income residents, has closed permanently, due to a debt issue recently discovered by the organization’s board.
“The board of Legal Aid learned that Legal Aid had a not-previously-disclosed debt of a substantial amount,” said Eric Eisenberg, a Legal Aid board member. “It was very large compared to Legal Aid’s budget. I did not personally feel that Legal Aid would be able to survive it.”
The board voted on Nov. 20 to close down the organization, and it is “trying to figure out” what the next steps are in terms of dealing with the outstanding debt, contacting clients with open cases and clearing out the building. Eisenberg, who is also Lewis County’s chief civil deputy prosecutor but was speaking in his role with Legal Aid, said he was unable to provide more details about the nature or amount of the debt.
Last year, the organization served 3,115 individuals, working out to 8,154 household members who benefited from those services. Most of those people were at or below the poverty line, and were helped by 49 local attorneys who provided 728 hours of pro bono work. Legal Aid’s budget of just less than $100,000 paid for two staffers and operating expenses to facilitate those services.
“It’s disappointing,” said Peter Abbarno, an attorney and former Legal Aid board member who also provided pro bono services to the organization. “It’s going to have a long-term impact if it doesn’t get revived and restarted.”
Abbarno, who serves on Centralia’s city council, noted that the effects won’t be felt only by the low-income residents who depend on Legal Aid’s services. Without professional help to navigate the complex legal system, many of those people will end up — “through no fault of their own” — weighing down the county’s judicial calendars and further straining the county budget.
“Having a strong Bar Legal Aid is not just good for the residents of Lewis County, but it’s good for the government of Lewis County,” Abbarno said.
Legal Aid provided services like free clinics and consultations, pro bono representation, referrals to other agencies and assistance in filling out forms. At present, those who relied on it for help are being directed to the Northwest Justice Project’s hotline, CLEAR — Coordinated Legal Education, Advice and Referral. That number is 1-888-201-1014.
That referral is not an ideal long-term scenario, Eisenberg said, and Legal Aid stakeholders are working to determine how to fill the void.
“The plan would be to create a successor organization to help people,” he said. “The fact that Legal Aid won’t be there does not reduce the need that the citizens of Lewis County have.”