Lewis County Bar legal aid shuts down over debt

  • Wed Dec 5th, 2018 1:30am
  • News

By Alex Brown

The Chronicle

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.”

With that in mind, Abbarno said he’s had about a dozen discussions of different options to replace Legal Aid’s role. He said not everyone shares his sense of urgency.

“I don’t think they understand what Bar Legal Aid does and the impact it could have,” he said. “Sometimes Bar Legal Aid gets a backseat, because it’s difficult to define what their mission is. What people are going to realize pretty soon is that they were more important than people realize.”

Legal Aid was previously reported to be in financial trouble this summer, after the loss of a United Way grant that had typically provided a substantial portion of its budget. The organization set out to fundraise to meet that gap, but the closure ultimately came down to the debt issue and not the grant, Eisenberg said.

“It is not the case that the lack of United Way funding really matters to this issue,” he said. “The whole conversation about United Way would have been different if the board members had known about this (debt).”

Debbie Campbell, the executive director of United Way of Lewis County, said she was contacted by a client the other day who was “beside herself” at the closure of Legal Aid. She was able to direct the individual to Abbarno for legal help, but said the closure of Legal Aid is a huge loss.

“This is a much-needed service in our community,” Campbell said. “It touches all ages.”

She noted that Legal Aid helped everyone from people navigating a divorce, parenting issues, tenant rights and senior citizen issues. United Way was unable to provide the organization a grant this year because of the rigorous process it applies to all organizations seeking funding, Campbell said, in which it can only give to those that meet a specific mission. She said she was eager to see Legal Aid reorganize with a greater focus on communicating its services and a more structured fundraising setup.

“Many of us are saddened that it’s going away, but maybe with that hope that they will reorganize,” Campbell said. “That organization needs to be self-sufficient. … If people understood what they did on a day-to-day basis, maybe people would give more money.”