The Impact of the Lowcountry Unity Fund: Charleston Legal Access

Charleston Legal Access is Charleston County’s first nonprofit, sliding scale law firm. The organization serves five households per week with legal counsel and advice and represents five to ten people at any given time in active cases. With the help of a $2,000 grant from LUF to power operations, the organization’s founder Sally Newman predicts they will double this impact by the end of 2016.

For CLA, $2,000 can be characterized as full payment for six months of rent (in a shared, nonprofit co-working space), or a year of malpractice insurance for staff and volunteers. The organization regularly recovers thousands of dollars for clients which would have otherwise been lost, destabilizing jobs, housing and overall financial resiliency. CLA will welcome two new attorneys to their staff by the end of the 2016, thereby allowing them to grow their client base.
Within the last seven months (the organization’s first seven months), CLA has served 40 clients, and as of September 1st, 2016 had eight active cases. The organization is also working on developing access to justice projects with nonprofit community partners, helping to provide legal aid and counsel to parties with limited English proficiency, and to kinship caregivers of children who have been removed from their parental homes by the Department of Social Services. 37.5% of people served are African American. 5% are Latino or of Asian descent, and of their whole client-base, 25% are physically disabled (a trait which is evenly distributed across racial and ethnic demographics).
Prior to CLA’s formation, there was no resource in our region for households who make too much ($16,000 for a single person) to qualify for a free legal services attorney, but cannot afford a private firm to assist them with legal issues. Landlords, banks and other institutions are often able to take advantage of the middle and moderate income population of Charleston County (which includes much of the African American and Latino population), knowing that these clients do not have the resources to counter unfair legal practice.
An example would be one of their clients – a blind, elderly African American woman who had been paying her mortgage for 30 years only to have a new mortgage servicer begin refusing her payments in 2016. This allowed the mortgage servicer to deem the owner’s insurance lapsed/insufficient and to force-place insurance on CLA’s client. (Force-placed insurance is traditionally more expensive and provides limited coverage.) Recently, when her daughter attempted to make a payment on her account, the mortgage company refused to give the address of where to make the payment. A CLA attorney can act as an interpreter, but even more, as a shield from legal jargon, brushoffs and disrespect.
Services offered by Charleston Legal Access combat systemic racism in the legal system by empowering clients and changing the way opposing parties treat the next tenant or new customer they work with.

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