I didn’t fully appreciate what our local attorneys have been doing to help low income residents with their civil legal problems until I chatted this week with Ryan Feeney, the executive director of Volunteer Attorney Services for Chelan and Douglas counties.
Feeney, who once upon a time was a reporter here at The World and then went back to school for a law degree, oversees an impressive effort by the Chelan-Douglas Bar Association to help people with limited financial means get access to free legal help. Feeney’s the point person for helping match individuals with attorneys who can help.
All too often, those who are poor fail to take action when notified of a legal action against them or face some other challenge, Feeney told me. Volunteer Attorney Services was started more than a decade ago because lawyers recognized that poor folks were at a significant disadvantage in addressing legal issues. Cost is a significant barrier.
The need has grown. Last year, local attorneys consulted on som 400 cases in our communities, volunteering their time to help the poor with wills, family law and other matters. Of the 200 or so local attorneys, about 70 are regular volunteers but just about everyone contributes in some way, from lending financial support to helping with fundraisers. Chelan County Superior Court Judge Chip Small said VAS is a critical component in helping citizens navigate the legal system.
One of Feeney’s favorite stories involves a local woman who needed a will because she had one item of value to pass along to her daughter — a letter she received as a young girl from Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of “Little House on the Prairie.” The local bar association has a long history of taking seriously “the professional obligation to make justice available for everybody,” Feeney said. He noted that the last line of the Pledge of Allegiance speaks to “justice for all.” That’s what VAS was created to help address.
Sadly, state funding to help low-income citizens gain access to the justice system has been depleted by 19 percent over the past five years. The impact is that those who need assistance will have a harder time navigating the intricacies of the legal system. The poor in our midst have the same kinds of legal needs as the rest of the population, but many don’t have the wherewithal to respond. If we want to live up to our ideal of ensuring justice for all and not have a system benefit only those who can afford it, we need to find ways to support this local organization.
Individuals who want to find out more can contact a statewide help line at 888-201-1014.
To see my video interview with Feeney, log on to wenatcheeworld.com and click on videos.