In 2005 the idea of the Free Legal Clinic was born with the realization that a student of mine needed legal, educational, and social support. To truly serve this student’s needs, all three issues needed to be addressed, together. I asked my employer if in addition to working on the student’s post secondary plan, whether I might also look for an attorney who could help the family navigate legal issues, too. It worked out, hence this unique concept was born.
In 2006, the Free Legal Clinic launched a four-clinic pilot program to test its theory that there are many individuals in our community in need of legal advice who cannot afford an attorney but do not meet substantive or income qualifying guidelines of existing legal aid services. FLC helped make the connections between attorneys and those who fall through the cracks. Our referral attorneys offered pro bono and reduced fee services to these clients. The pilot program scheduled day and evening clinic hours held at Community Health Program’s Family Center, Berkshire South Regional Community Center, Lenox and Lee Libraries, and the Lenox Town Hall, and offered free interpreter and childcare services as well as healthy snacks. During this pilot period, FLC received referrals from nine organizations and made referrals to 13 service providers.
In addition, we tested our theory that those in need of legal assistance would also benefit from referrals to other social and community service, and that clients’ legal issues are sometimes related to larger social issues. For example a client who came to us for eviction for non-payment of rent was referred to both a landlord tenant attorney and a fuel assistance program. Another client came to us because she defaulted on her credit card debt – which resulted from her charging a medical procedure because she had no health insurance. She then lost her job and was unable to pay the bill. We referred her to both an attorney and to local resources that link people with medical insurance.
We’ve grown from offering 2-4 legal clinics a year to offering weekly Free Legal Clinics in a permanent collaboration with the Guthrie Center free lunch and annual Thanksgiving Dinner events. Newer programs include sliding scale direct legal services and education programs. At this juncture, the name Free Legal Clinic didn’t reflect the breadth of our services. Therefore we changed our name to the Berkshire Center for Justice. Free legal clinics are but one program we offer, and we offer so much more than that, now.