As our country celebrates the anniversary of its founding with fireworks and parades this weekend, we’ll also reflect on some of the fundamental core values that bring Americans together – the pursuit of life, freedom and justice for all.
Most of us probably know that people charged with a crime have a right to legal assistance. Public defenders represent defendants who cannot afford lawyers. But in the civil justice system, where people can challenge an eviction or foreclosure, or where a victim of domestic violence can apply for a protection order, you have no right to a lawyer if you can’t afford one.
Access to justice in civil matters should not be a privilege for the few. For decades, thousands of New Hampshire residents have benefited each year from the work of NH Legal Assistance (NHLA), the NH Bar Association’s Pro Bono Referral System, and the Legal Advice and Referral Center (LARC), programs that work towards a common goal Provide access to justice for all.
While New Hampshire’s system of civil legal assistance is widely respected, we know that it can be found confusing to both potential customers trying to access the system and other service providers assisting people in need, how a recent study on civil law needs shows illustrated published by the Commission on Access to Justice. That is why representatives of the three legal aid programs have been working since 2018 to create even better access to these civil law services in New Hampshire. The better access model here is: 603 Legal Aid.
Pro Bono and LARC have teamed up to create a new civil legal assistance portal that streamlines the process for those seeking help. 603 Legal Aid offers a central point of contact for clients and guarantees a seamless, efficient connection with the appropriate provider and level of service. This new approach will maximize the resources available for legal aid and make the process more efficient so that we can serve a larger population.
603 Legal Aid is more than a merger, it is a transformative change for legal aid in New Hampshire. 603 Legal Aid will continue to have an online library of resources on individual rights in many types of civil matters, as well as a dynamic voluntary training program for lawyers and, soon, increased services from employee lawyers.
The new program will also work more closely than ever with the NHLA to ensure access to justice for everyone in our state. 603 Legal Aid and NHLA serve clients with incomes up to 200% of the state poverty line and older adults, meaning a family of four earning up to $ 53,000 a year is eligible for legal aid.
Both programs deal exclusively with civil law issues, not criminal matters. They focus on civil law cases related to the basic human needs of clients including evictions, foreclosures, loss of housing benefits, domestic violence, family law, public benefits including social security disability, SSI, SNAP (food stamps), unemployment and Medicaid, consumer issues, issues with those older adults face financial exploitation and layoffs from nursing homes; and youth issues, including school discipline and special education for children at risk of juvenile justice.
When a person contacts 603 Legal Aid, they can expect a straightforward process. After reviewing financial eligibility and identifying the problem, 603 Legal Aid determines whether the individual is eligible and addresses an issue that Legal Aid is working on. From there, 603 Legal Aid connects the person with the appropriate information, resources, and recommendations. If an individual requires attorney representation, 603 Legal Aid can provide direct representation, refer the client to a volunteer attorney through its pro bono program, or seamlessly connect with the NHLA or other community partner.
The NHLA will continue to operate like a traditional law firm, assisting and representing people at all levels of judicial and administrative hearings, and advocating changes in laws and regulations that affect low-income families.
Throughout the pandemic, legal assistance has been available to individuals and families whose lives have been turned upside down by COVID and its financial repercussions. From unemployment insurance claims to evictions to distance learning services, we were there for Granite Staters during this time of need. And with many protective measures related to COVID expected to end soon, legal aid will be just as important in the months and years to come. The partnership between NHLA and 603 Legal Aid strengthens this commitment and our performance.
Civil legal assistance programs receive some state and federal funding, but these are nowhere near enough to meet needs. In New Hampshire, those who are able to do so can move forward by donating to the NH Campaign for Legal Services, which raises private funds for 603 Legal Aid and NHLA. It is time to make the necessary investments to ensure all Granite Staters have access to the American Promise of Justice for All.
(Sonya Bellafant is the executive director of 603 Legal Aid. She lives in Concord. Contact 603 Legal Aid 24/7 at 603LegalAid.org or 9am to 1pm daily at 603-639-5290.)