Wake County announces creation of legal support center for free help in civil court matters

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Monday, October 17, 2022
Wake County announces creation of legal support center
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The legal support center will open in January in the Wake County courthouse. The center aims to offer free information on all civil matters.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Thousands of civil court cases are filed in Wake County every month.

These filings for many are confusing and complicated. The process is made even more complex when people don't have access to legal support.

"It's so intimidating.'What do I do? Where do I go?' Up until today you really didn't have a very good answer for that question," said Wake County board chair Sig Hutchinson.

On Monday, Wake County leaders and legal stakeholders announced the creation of a legal support center.

The center will open in January in the Wake County courthouse. The center aims to offer free information on all civil matters.

A statewide assessment t by NC Equal Access to Justice Commission and the Equal Justice Alliance found substantial unmet legal needs.

Around 70% of low-income families will encounter at least one legal issue a year and around 91% of them cited cost as a top barrier.

Wake County commissioner Matt Calabria said that when people go unrepresented, it doesn't just affect them but creates "needless churn bogging down the justice system with people having to come back over and over."

Legal Aid helps, but the need is overwhelming

Currently, Legal Aid offers free services to low-income families but the organization would need to triple its budget to serve all the needs across the state. Another issue is Legal Aid has income criteria and a large portion of North Carolinians are left in this gap between making more than $16,000 a year and not having enough money to pay for an attorney.

"Spending hundreds of dollars an hour on attorney fees isn't an option when you can barely feed your family or to pay your rent," said Calabria.

The goal of the center is to protect people's rights and reduce delays.

Data shows issues related to housing and family matters are top areas of need.

Evictions are majority of cases

Evictions represent a large percentage of cases filed monthly and they are growing. A previous ABC11 I-Team investigation found in August 70% more evictions were filed in Wake County than the year before.

Raleigh city leaders identified this need earlier this summer. In May, the city pointed to its high volume of evictions filed.

The city partnered with Campbell University Law School to provide legal services to people facing eviction and homelessness.

Emily Mistr is the interim clinical director of Campbell University's Blanchard Community Law Clinic, which works on eviction cases for Raleigh residents.

"The need in Wake County is enormous," Mistr said. She said about 90% of the cases getting filed in the county are related to housing.

"Sometimes, the relief that we're able to offer is only 30-day relief. But when you're talking about individual human beings or family or children or elderly, anybody keeping a roof over someone's head for an additional 30 days is a dramatic success when the counter of that is homelessness," she said.

She said that since August, the clinic has assisted with an estimated 30 cases.

"We have had a positive successful outcome in one way or another for every one of those clients and to me, that shows the need for attorney representation in those cases. If nothing else, if you have an attorney you're more likely to be successful, or to get some sort of positive outcome in your case than you are without an attorney," Mistr said.

Despite the success, the clinic has experienced from the start, Mistr's team is limited both by manpower and the people it can help.

Wake County's legal support center won't offer legal representation or consultation in the beginning. Mistr said she believes even just having a place where people can find resources and ask questions regarding paperwork will make a difference.

"I think it would make a pretty big impact on the legal services," Mistr said.

Mistr is hopeful that both Raleigh and Wake County leaders will increase funding for these legal resources going forward.

"What we're hoping is that the Wake County Commissioners and the county government will see the success that we're having with the City of Raleigh money and be willing to supplement that so that we can offer our services to the entire county of residence," she explained.

Wake County's center will initially cost around $180,000 until June and then will cost around a quarter of a million dollars annually. Part of this cost is paid by Wake County taxpayers but the center is also funded through various grants.