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Shrinking Aid

Low-income legal aid becomes harder to come by in Napa

By Joy Lanzendorfer

Starting this month, if you're poor and need legal services in Napa County, you're probably out of luck. Napa's only major resource that offered civil legal services for low-income people, Legal Aid of the North Bay, has closed its doors from lack of funding. The office handled around 412 cases a year, all for families making less than $28,000. With the closing, Napa becomes the only county in the Bay Area without a Legal Aid office.

The Legal Aid office handled many fundamental services. It helped abused women file restraining orders against their abusers, protected tenants who were unfairly evicted, and provided resources for abused elders and advocacy for children in the foster-care system. With its demise comes a huge need for representation among the poorest in the community.

"It makes me shudder to think of all the individuals who used to come to my door and now have no services," says Ronit Rubinoff, an attorney with Napa's Legal Aid office for six years. "Now I don't see those people in court. They aren't getting through the door."

According to census data, out of 45,395 households in Napa County in 1999, 2,533 earn less than $10,000 per year; 1,864 earn between $10,000 and $15,000; and 4,825 earn between $25,000 and $35,000.

Legal Aid of the North Bay's Napa office cost approximately $250,000 a year to run, though it cut expenses down to $150,000 last year. The office was established more than 30 years ago through federal grants. As the years went on, the funding shrank. In the 1990s, it merged with Marin's Legal Aid office, becoming Legal Aid of the North Bay.

By the time it closed, Napa's office saw only $65,000 a year in government grants. The rest was covered by local sources. The problem was that the Napa office didn't see enough private grants from the local community to continue to operate. So it subsidized expenses with trusts and endowments given to Marin County.

"Donors to the Marin office were not happy to see their donations go outside Marin County," says Michael Holman, attorney and head of a steering committee dealing with the closing. "They asked Napa to step up to the plate and fund its own office. And why not? There are certainly plenty of private funding sources here."

But the downturn in the economy has made many groups less giving. Nonprofits all over the country are struggling, including the Marin office.

"There's a lot of uncertainty in the current climate," says director of litigation Richard Marcantonio. "We are having trouble, but we're not to the point of losing any staff yet."

For the short term, the Marin office has opened an 800 number for Napa people to call for advice and help. It will also offer some representation for abused elders. In addition, other entities like the Napa Superior Court will offer some limited resources. But it's not enough to cover the demand, some say.

"Legal Aid helped people in a lot of ways," says Holman. "They did clearinghouse work and spent a lot of time giving people information and pointing them in the right direction. That sort of thing is hard to measure."

The committee is exploring different funding opportunities to reopen some of the services. However, even with all the potential money in wealthy Napa County, the future Legal Aid will probably not be in a standalone office. Instead, it will be some sort of combination group using resources from other nonprofits and the courts, according to Holman.

For the people who need representation right now, there aren't many options. By calling the 800 number, individuals can find out about lawyers who do pro bono work, though that can be a long shot. Free legal services are always in high demand. With the closing of the office, many hope Napa's legal community will do more charity work.

"I hope local firms will offer more pro bono work," says Holman. "I have always said that my own family couldn't afford my services. Lawyers are so expensive. It starts at $125 an hour for a young, inexperienced attorney. And legal services are important. Without advocacy, there can be no justice."

According to a letter in the Napa Valley Register, Napa citizen K. D. Yeend estimated that from the listing of 268 attorneys in the phone book, the amount of pro bono work necessary to cover the gap left by the demise of the Legal Aid office is only 1.5 cases of pro bono work per attorney per year.

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From the April 17-23, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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