Area Legal Aid Only Able to Meet Fraction of Need

Article excerpt

Despite the efforts of 25 full-time attorneys, Jacksonville Area Legal Aid Inc. helps only a fraction of those who can't afford to fight negligent landlords, abusive husbands or federal benefit programs.

Legal Aid, which services Baker, Duval and Nassau counties through its downtown Jacksonville office and Clay County with a branch office, handled 5,282 cases in 1999. But officials said the number of people seeking their services far exceeds the number they could actually help.

"Study after study shows that legal services programs are only meeting about 20 percent of the need," said Michael Figgins, executive director of Jacksonville Area Legal Aid Inc. "And with restrictions that have been placed on legal services programs, people pretty much get half an attorney. That's not really legal justice."

Legal Aid handles only civil cases. Custody and domestic violence cases, housing discrimination, divorce, consumer fraud and Social Security and Medicare entitlements make up the majority of the non-profit agency's case load.

Heidi Hayn's custody battle is one of the 362 cases Legal Aid's tiny Green Cove Springs office closed last year, but attorneys said the number doesn't accurately reflect the number of cases the Clay County Branch handled.

"When you don't have the money, you can't fight for your rights," said Hayn, an Orange Park mother who turned to Legal Aid last year to fight for custody of her 12-year-old son. "I wouldn't have been able to fight for my son without them."

Gloria Einstein, lead attorney in the Green Cove Springs office, said she finds deep personal satisfaction in helping her clients, but admits the process can be trying.

"It does get easier to tell people they don't qualify for assistance or that we can't take on their case," she said. "But it never quits tugging at your heart strings."

She's often pressed to conduct important legal research, prepare for court appearances and interview new clients in a regular eight-hour day. A new attorney hired in February is easing the work load, but officials said there's still too much to do.

"We do the very best we can with very limited resources," Einstein said. …