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Ruling may threaten legal aid

March 30, 1999|By BRYN MICKLE

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - One of the last lines of legal defense for low-income Eastern Panhandle residents could be in jeopardy due to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

The ruling could result in the West Virginia Legal Services Plan losing 15 percent of its funding, recalling the slashing of its budget by federal cuts in 1981.

"It's hard to say what we would do. You can only tighten your belt so much," said Bill Wertman, managing attorney for the Legal Services Plan office in Martinsburg.

The West Virginia Legal Services Plan recently received $150,000 from the West Virginia Bar Foundation through a program that requires money earned from interest on trust funds administered by lawyers to be funneled into legal programs that help the poor.

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The U.S. Supreme Court, however, has ruled such programs are an unlawful taking of money in a decision that could filter down to West Virginia within two to three years if the ruling stands.

The West Virginia Legal Services Plan gets about $350,000 of its $2.2 million yearly budget from the trust fund program, said Ken Eigenbrod, deputy program director for the Legal Services Plan.

"We can fund an office for about $350,000. To lose that much would be pretty severe," said Eigenbrod.

The Martinsburg office, one of seven in the state, provides legal services to low-income people on civil matters that range from protective orders and custody cases to evictions and consumer issues, said Wertman.

The office initially served only Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan counties when it opened in 1976. It has since grown to include eight counties, while its staff has shrunk from three full-time attorneys to one.

"We're really the last line of help for a lot of people. Unfortunately we have so many requests already that we have to turn people away and try to help the people in the greatest crisis," said Wertman.

Wertman and fellow attorney Gary Geffert, who works part-time, spend most of their time helping people protect themselves from abusive situations or forestalling evictions.

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