Justice for all: Overwhelming need for free legal help in Oregon

Special Reports

Attorneys volunteer services, but demand outpaces supply

OREGON CITY, Ore. (KOIN) — The U.S. Constitution guarantees your right to an attorney in criminal trials, but there’s no right to legal representation when you’re facing civil troubles. People of modest means know legal help does not come cheap.

“I tell ‘em what the reduced rate is, they go ‘Oh I could never,’” attorney Scott Karnitz said. “Whether it’s $60 an hour or $2 million an hour is the same. They still can’t afford it.”

A survey commissioned by groups including the Oregon State Bar looked at the legal challenges of low-income Oregonians. It found 75% of participants live in a household that experienced a legal problem in the past 12 months, and 84.2% of respondents who needed a lawyer were not able to get one.

Free and reduced-rate legal services are available, but they aren’t always easy to find, especially if you don’t know where to look.

Fortunately, the Clackamas County Law Library is right next to the courthouse in Oregon City.

Attorney Scott Karnitz regularly volunteers at the Clackamas County Law Library’s “Lawyer in the Library Clinic” (Hannah Ray Lambert)

“The law library exists to provide equal access to justice to everyone,” law librarian Jennifer Dalglish said. “A lot of people think that public law libraries, if they’ve ever even heard of them … (are) only available to attorneys and judges and that’s not the case … we help everyone from students, authors, reporters, pro se litigants and potential pro se litigants (someone who’s representing themselves in court).”

A librarian is on site to help visitors navigate the troves of books, records, prior cases, and online databases inside the library. They even have legal forms people can copy or modify for their own uses.

The library also hosts two free legal clinics on alternating months. The expungement clinic, reserved for low-income clients, started in 2014 to help people clean up their records.

“It does help remove those barriers to jobs and housing and things like that, by not having that conviction or that arrest on your record it generally will not show up on any of these background searches,” said Tom Noble, president-elect of the Clackamas County Bar Association.

Tom Noble, president-elect of the Clackamas County Bar Association, has been helping with the expungement clinics for several years (Hannah Ray Lambert).

You can’t expunge crimes like murder, but after a certain amount of time you can get violations like theft and possession of a controlled substance expunged, Noble said.

The clinics are wildly popular; the volunteer attorneys have helped hundreds of people.

More recently, the law library added a “Lawyer in the Library” program that is open to everyone, regardless of income. Every other month, attorneys volunteer their time to do free 30-minute consultations with people regarding whatever legal problem they may have.

“Debt collection is a very common situation,” assistant law librarian Angela Hajihashemi said. Landlord-tenant law, wills and probate issues are also frequent topics.

Family law dominates all other areas of law though, making up 50% of requests.

“Whether it’s $60 an hour or $2 million … they still can’t afford it.”

Karnitz said upwards of 80% of people coming through the courts for family law don’t have lawyers because they can’t afford it. In the grand scheme of things, 30 minutes with a lawyer isn’t a ton of time, but it does help.

“It’s enough time … to give the logistics of how their case would work with the court,” Karnitz said. “Kind of talk through the process for 10-15 minutes and then spend 10-15 minutes talking through the specifics of their case, and give them a couple pointers … and then talk about the finances and what’s gonna be available to them.”

This chart shows the areas of legal help requested at the Lawyer in the Library clinics (Clackamas County Law Library)

Trouble understanding court procedures and rules rated the biggest problem in terms of accessing the courts, according to the 2018 Civil Legal Needs Study.

Only a couple of county law libraries offer these free clinics, though, and they quickly fill up.

“The need is so much greater than our volunteer attorneys can meet,” Dalglish said.

With minimal or even no advertising, Hajihashemi said they have no trouble filling clinics. Word of mouth and past advertisements keep clients coming.

The staff at the law library hope to be able to take advantage of grants and other types of funding in the future so they can expand their services, Daglish said.

The Oregon State Bar is another tool for finding free legal information. It also offers a modest means program, in which clients can pay a reduced rate for legal services. Learn more here.

The Clackamas County Law Library as seen January 23, 2020 in Oregon City (Hannah Ray Lambert)

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