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Low-income legal clinic opens its doors

March 18, 2002|BY STACEY DANZUSO

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - In a throwback to the days when storefront legal clinics were a downtown staple for communities, Chambersburg now has its own locally operated legal service for low-income residents in the county.

"The number of volunteers and the community support reflects a hunger for something like this to exist," said Mahesh Rao, co-director of Franklin County Legal Services. "People wanted storefront legal services."

The agency opened March 1, and in its first week of business opened 10 cases and gave advice to 35 callers, Rao said.

Franklin County Legal Services, 19 S. Main St., offers free work on civil cases for county residents who earn less than 187.5 percent of the federal poverty level. Cases range from domestic relationships and mortgage foreclosure to Social Security and welfare benefits.

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"What we deal with are life-and-death situations," Phil Cosentino, president of Franklin County Legal Services and the Franklin County Bar Association, told the Chambersburg Borough Council several weeks ago.

The agency is an outgrowth of other regional legal services, Rao said.

Legal Services Inc., began in the 1970s and served Franklin, Fulton, Adams and Cumberland counties. Three years ago, Legal Services Corp., the federal agency that oversees legal services programs nationwide, decided to consolidate programs.

The local group consolidated with programs in Harrisburg, Pa., and State College, Pa., to form MidPenn Legal Services, which extends to 18 counties in central Pennsylvania.

In September, however, the Franklin County Bar Association began thinking about a locally governed, locally funded program.

"We decided it would be a good idea, not for the purpose of supplanting MidPenn, but to complement it," Rao said. "There are unique strengths of a smaller, locally funded program.

"There is a sense of 'rootedness' in the community," he said.

Since it doesn't receive federal money, Franklin County Legal Services was able to extend its services to more clients and serve residents earning less than 187.5 percent of the federal poverty level as opposed to the 125 percent MidPenn is limited to, Rao said.

That means two-person families earning less than $21,700 qualify for help at Franklin County Legal Services, about $7,000 higher than a federally subsidized program could accept based on 2001 Federal Poverty Levels.

"We made it slightly broader because we discovered a class of people in the community too poor to afford services of private lawyers but do not qualify for services of public attorneys," he said.

"We won't have a lot of administrative overhead, so we can devote more resources, more time and effort to help people," said Co-director Carolyn Carter.

Rao and a part-time bookkeeper are the only paid staff members. Carter is a volunteer attorney who used to be director of Legal Services Inc., before it merged. There are another 10 volunteers ranging from a lawyer and paralegal to others with a legal sevices background.

The agency's budget for its first year is $48,100.

All services are completely free, although clients can make a contribution of up to $10, he said.

An anonymous local attorney put up money to pay for the year's rent for one of the two rooms Franklin County Legal Services uses and raised the rest for the second room, Rao said.

On Tuesday, the Chambersburg Borough Council voted to award the agency $10,000 from its 2002 Small Cities Community Development Block Grants.

Hours are Monday and Wednesday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Tuesday and Thursday, 1 to 8 p.m.; and Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Walk-ins are welcome during business hours.

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