Kelisha Williams has been trying to get a divorce for five years and said it has been a long and expensive endeavor.
Last fall, when a car accident left her unable to work and without steady income, she couldn’t afford a lawyer.
The cost for legal representation, according to estimates Williams received: between $8,000 to $10,000. But earlier this year, a 3rd Circuit Court judge referred her to the William Booth Legal Aid Clinic — the Salvation Army’s only free legal service provider in the world, serving low-income metro Detroit residents — and she’s now hopeful she’ll get to a resolution. The 47-year-old Detroiter said it was a relief the court told her about the clinic because otherwise she likely would have been waiting for someone to call her back or tell her they’re not accepting clients.
“It wasn’t hard to find them. It was just hard to get someone to help you,” Williams told the Free Press on a Thursday in June as she waited at the clinic for help on default paperwork to proceed with the divorce. It was the first day the organization opened its in-person clinic after three years of over-the-phone and virtual services throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
The phone at the William Booth Legal Aid Clinic constantly rings, clinic director Amy Roemer said. The nonprofit has to turn people away when it is booked with clients. It’s a similar story at other legal aid organizations across the state. More than 1.7 million low-income Michiganders qualify for civil legal aid, however there is only one available attorney for every 5,401 eligible residents, according to the Michigan State Bar Foundation. Legal aid groups say the demand for free housing, family and consumer finance services far outweighs the available funding.
“We’ve never been funded at a level to
Lawyers, bar association leaders and advocates are urging Massachusetts legislators to allocate more money for civil legal aid programs in the next state budget. They say the past few years showed an increased demand for these programs, which provide low-income residents with free legal advice and representation.
Hundreds of people attended a virtual event Thursday in support of a $49 million allocation, including some heavy hitters in Boston’s legal circles, such as Gov. Maura Healey and Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Kimberly Budd. The budget-writing process for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, is revving up as the governor drafts her ideas for tens of billions in state spending.
“Our legal system is dedicated to the principle of providing equal justice for all,” said Budd. “But too often we fall short of the ideal because many people still lack the legal resources that they need to present their cases in the courts, and our legal aid organizations work tirelessly simply do not have enough funding to provide counsel for everyone who comes to them seeking help.”
Budd said in the last three years, civil legal aid cases involving unemployment insurance quadrupled from pre-pandemic figures, and that domestic violence cases, housing and immigration all increased by 20%.
Fewer people were turned away from legal aid services this past year thanks to state funding — but advocates say more is needed.
Louis Tompros, chair of the Equal Justice Coalition, which hosted Thursday’s event, said last year state dollars helped cut down on how many qualified recipients had to be turned away by legal aid programs across the state: 47% last year, down from 57% the year before.
“More funding means more people being served, and yet there remains a huge unmet need,” he said. “Almost half of low-income residents