Monday was Greta Gard’s birthday. But she didn’t let that fact, or the rain and wind, stop her from making the trek downtown to avail herself of the free legal services on tap during Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2017.
“I thought I couldn’t afford not to go,” said Gard. “I even got to talk to two different lawyers.”
Gard was at Dimond Courthouse Monday afternoon, one of two Juneau locations where local attorneys were on hand to provide legal advice on topics including estate planning and probate, child custody and support, to those who might not otherwise be able to afford it.
Gard said she had two issues she had wanted advice on, one of which had to do with custodial rights when two states are involved.
“I appreciated very much being able to ask these important questions,” she said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve complained (that) I need to talk to a lawyer. … It was very nice to have this opportunity.”
“It’s been really encouraging to see the response from the Juneau legal community,” said Mari Carpeneti, the president of the Juneau Bar Association, which hosted the event in conjunction with the Alaska Bar Association, Alaska Court System, Alaska Public Media and Alaska Legal Services. “We had dozens of people volunteer their time and their expertise.”
Carpeneti said that her time in private practice here gave her a good sense of the gap between the need for legal services and accessibility.
“Even if you’re working,” she said, adding that Monday’s clinic was especially important because there were no income requirements. “The ordinary middle class needs legal services now and then and are barred by the cost, which is prohibitive a lot of times.”
Alaska Legal Services staff attorney Eric Vang noted that because his organization, the only general source of civil law help in Alaska, is limited in who they serve on a day-to-day basis, being able to provide legal services to everyone is a great extension of ALS’ goal of accessibility.
The event - the eighth year for the project - took place from 9 a.m. to noon at Alaska Legal Services in the Jordan Creek and then at the downtown Juneau courthouse from 1-4 p.m. Services also were available in Anchorage and Fairbanks, and via a phone bank for Alaskans outside those three cities.
The event typically serves about 40 to 50 people; one year, they helped about 75 clients, Vang said.
“We’ll see anyone from landlords to homeless folks,” he said. “We get a lot of family law questions, landlord-tenant questions, Social Security questions. Disability benefits - that’s a very confusing bureaucracy. Will and probate questions, those are very common. It runs the gamut.”
Vang said the goal was to take 20 minutes to help each person who walked through the door to identify the legal problem they need to solve and help them figure out what the next legal step might be.
Attorney Bruce Weyrhauch was one of the attorneys on hand during the morning session.
“Sometimes, people (walk in and) they don’t know what they need or what they want,” he said. “We try to prioritize, to triage, we help them organize their problems and come up with a plan.”
Often, the law is so complex that even a lawyer needs a lawyer, Weyrhauch joked - so how is a layperson supposed to deal with that?
The Juneau Bar Association made a deliberate decision to hold the free legal event on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Weyrhauch said.
“It’s a symbol, based on a man’s life who was dedicated to equal rights,” he said. “If we take (his) words to heart, we give equality to all people under the law.”
Vang advised anyone who could not make it to the free services day to contact ALS for civil issues, or go online to the family law self-help center at http://www.courts.alaska.gov/shc/family/selfhelp.htm.