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Attorney: County Legal Services has a busy first year

Franklin County Legal Services opened 236 cases in its first nine months of operation, and hundreds of others sought

Franklin County Legal Services opened 236 cases in its first nine months of operation, and hundreds of others sought

January 06, 2003|by STACEY DANZUSO

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBUG - Faced with a heavy caseload, Mahesh Rao said the demand on Franklin County Legal Services exceeded all expectations in its first year.

From the day the free legal clinic opened its doors at 19 S. Main St. on March 1 until the end of November, 236 cases were opened, Rao said. He fielded hundreds of other calls from people seeking advice.

"Until September, we essentially were a one-attorney operation. For one attorney, 236 is a fairly extraordinary number," Rao said.

Franklin County Legal Services 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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Through additional grants and donations, the organization secured enough funding by last fall to add a second full-time attorney and hired Carrie Bowmaster. With two attorneys on board, Franklin County Legal Services has expanded its hours to include days, evenings and weekends.

"I've always wanted to help people who a lot of the time can't help themselves or at least not afford it," Bowmaster said.

She said most cases involve custody disputes, divorce and landlord/tenant relations.

Some case are open-and-shut, while others drag on.

"It's hard to predict how long they are going to go on. This county has four steps in a custody case. Many settle on the second stage, but you can't predict it," she said.

The agency is an outgrowth of other regional legal services that consolidated about four years ago to form MidPenn Legal Services, Rao said.

The Franklin County Bar Association began thinking about a locally governed and funded program in 2001.

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 threshold MidPenn is limited to, Rao said.

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

Rao said the broader range allows another option for some people who wouldn't qualify for public attorneys but can't afford a private one.

So far, the Alexander Stewart Foundation has donated $7,600 and the Chambersburg Borough Council allotted $10,000 from its 2002 Community Development Block Grant funds. Private donations and funding from the Friends of Legal Services have kept the service going.

Rao encourages clients to call ahead and set up an appointment, since the two attorneys are often in court and no one is left to staff the office.

"The fact we are open on weekends and evenings has been quite a convenience to many in our client population," Rao said.

Franklin County Legal Services is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; has additional hours until 8 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays; and is open Saturdays from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

For information, contact Franklin County Legal Services at 717-262-2326, send e-mail to email@fcls.net or go to www.fcls.net on the Web.

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