Agency lands grant to give free legal advice to those in need in May
Berkshire Center for Justice adds balance to scales of law for low-income and poverty-stricken
GREAT BARRINGTON — You've just been served with a notice of eviction, but there's no money to pay the rent. There's no food for you or your children. Moreover, there's a pandemic going on.
You have nowhere to go, and the last place you're thinking of is a lawyer's office, because you can't afford to eat, let alone hire a lawyer.
Think again. Since 2006, the Berkshire Center for Justice has been serving the region's indigent and low-income residents, providing or connecting them with legal, social and community supports, says Eve Schatz, the center's founder, executive director and an attorney.
The nonprofit agency was just awarded $5,000 from Berkshire United Way's COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund; the center was selected for the grants by a panel from the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, Berkshire United Way, Northern Berkshire United Way, and Williamstown Community Chest, along with community volunteers.
The center focuses on civil law, aiding clients with matters of divorce, debt, bankruptcy, wills, health care proxies and powers of attorney. With the grant, the agency is offering free legal counseling sessions for those who can't afford it for the entire month of May.
“A lawyer is appointed for you in criminal courts. No similar thing really exists for civil law, except in some rare circumstances. If you have a civil matter, and you can't afford an attorney, you're stuck. That's where Berkshire Center for Justice helps,” says Schatz.
Annually, the center takes on about 250 cases a year and has served thousands of Berkshire residents to date. This year, because of the pandemic, Schatz says the agency already has seen 109 clients, many with COVID-19-related questions.
“Corona has certainly increased our client load, and shifted the types of questions we're receiving. We've had front-line providers call us with a range of employment questions. What does someone do if they are in the high risk category themselves?” says Schatz, citing examples.
She has fielded calls for low-income landlords, wanting more information about their rights when tenants don't pay their rent. “We also receive calls from low-income tenants. What do they do if they're being pressured out of a rental?”
The center is one of 27 nonprofit legal firms in the country that offers a sliding scale fees for direct legal services, and never charges fees for its Free Legal Clinic, says Schatz.
“Our programming is thoughtfully designed and ahead of the times. We've been consistently offering Free Legal Clinics since 2006. Nobody else was doing that,” says Schatz. She says that clients who can afford to pay something, do. However, about 25 percent of center clients are living below the federal poverty guidelines.
“They're really the poorest of the poor,” says Schatz.
Another 73 percent of her Berkshire clients are also low-income.
“That's our clientele. We are really interested in reaching people of all backgrounds, all races, of all countries of origin and all orientations. We want to connect with people who need us.”
When Schatz talks about helping, she can't help but smile. “You can tell: I love my clients,” says Schatz.
For example, Schatz had a client who was a cancer patient being evicted after living for 20 years in the same trailer park. She was able to negotiate an agreement so that he was able to complete his cancer treatment and not get evicted.
After he moved out and into a new rental, he called Schatz with an update. “His new landlord hired him, and he met a woman,” says Schatz.
In another case, she received a letter from an elderly woman living alone in Pittsfield, who had no telephone service. “If she fell on the ice, she couldn't make a call,” says Schatz, adding that many clients don't own computers or cellphones. In this instance, Schatz helped the woman get her phone line restored.
“I just try to balance the scale a little bit, so it's not so out of whack,” says Schatz.
Most of the center’s legal cases are referred out to a network of attorneys the agency has been working with for years, says Schatz.
The Berkshire Center for Justice relies on her, as well as a part-time employee and cadre of volunteers and lawyers to assist those in need with legal and other struggles. Some of the region's lawyers get paid for assisting the center and some don't. Factors include the availability of attorneys, the complexity of the case and whether it's a contingency case, in which an attorney is paid nothing until there's a final settlement.
Another defining characteristic of the agency is its partnership and collaboration with most of the nonprofit agencies up and down the Berkshires.
“From the beginning, the center has made both legal and social referrals, which has differentiated us from how other law firms work. Many clients have benefited directly from receiving referrals to services in the community,” says Schatz.
From challenges with substance abuse to domestic violence, the center has connected its clients with such regional entities as the Brien Center, food pantries, Community Health Programs, Construct, the Elizabeth Freeman Center, Councils on Aging and Elder Services, even a brain injury association.
“We've had some very compassionate examples of collaboration. There was one woman whose husband died, and she couldn't afford to live in the marital home. The house was about to go into foreclosure,” says Schatz.
Partnering with the Berkshire Regional Housing Authority and the Claire Teague Senior Center, together they handled the short-sale closing and located her to an alternative place to live. Numerous people helped in the community, says Schatz.
“Not all real estate closings are the same, and in this case the client wasn't walking away with any money, so this was a pro bono case.”
Most social services agencies are not prepared to deal with legal matters, and most lawyers are not designed to handle social problems, she points out.
“(The center) was designed with this in mind. I saw that legal, social and community are tied together, to the ultimate benefit of the client and the community at large,” says Schatz, who earned her law degree from Western New England University School of Law in 2010. “Really what we've done is redefine what a law office is. Most are not prepared to deal with community issues in this way.”
Schatz was inspired to get into law back in 2003. She was working at Housatonic Valley Regional High School in Canaan, Conn., creating post-secondary plans for high school students with disabilities, such as college, internships, job shadowing and employment.
“I worked with a young man. He was living with his father, and his father was dying. His father needed legal assistance to prepare the son for his death. I went to my supervisor to get permission to contact local lawyers to see if they could be in service to his dad, so his son's long-term needs could be fulfilled,” she recalls.
The supervisor agreed. Schatz made calls and connected him with an attorney. It worked out for the student, who then had a safety net in place when his father passed away before the end of high school.
That was when the idea of her agency coalesced.
“I've always thought that way. The concept wasn't born at that moment, but I jumped on it. I was able to integrate it all for the best service of an individual,” says Schatz.
All services are being delivered remotely because of social distancing requirements, so the office at 287 Main St. in Great Barrington is not open to the public. The BCJ has amended its Free Legal Clinic programming to comply with and protect health safety standards.
All intakes are to be conducted on our website intake application or by telephone.
To take part in BCJ’s Free Legal Clinic this month, call 413-854-1955 or complete an intake form on the website at https://berkshirecenterforjustice.org/; click on the link for “Free Legal Clinic.” The pro-bono assistance will be offered on a first come, first served basis.
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