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'Justice On The Block' Takes Legal Aid To People

There’s an effort underway to make it easier for Escambia County residents who can’t afford an attorney to access to legal help on various civil matters. The Escambia Project is taking ‘justice to the people’ through a series of legal aid pilot programs, including Justice on the Block.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, the small entrance to the Support Services Center at Community Action Program Committee (CAP) headquarters served as the hub for volunteers, volunteer attorneys, and local residents seeking legal assistance.

It was a bit chaotic, but Caroline Peterson had it under control. She’s a paralegal at the Levin Papantonio law firm and co-chair of Justice on the Block.

“I’m the organizing queen of trying to get lawyers out in our community to help people who wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable coming into a law firm,” said Peterson. “They don’t feel they belong there.”

Further, these particular individuals don’t have the money to pay for legal help.

Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
Caroline Peterson (left), co-chair of Justice on the Block, works with volunteers and participating attorneys to keep the Oct. 17 event on track.

So, for this event, the lawyers were brought to them, free of charge, at the CAP office, 1380 N. Palafox St., near downtown Pensacola. Peterson says picking a convenient place and time for Justice on the Block is important.

“We try to do it in the middle of the day, so you could get the 7 a.m. – 3 p.m. workers and the 3 p.m. – 11 p.m. workers. We try to do it close to a bus route, so we could get the bus traffic. We try to think of all these things.”

Here’s the set up. Residents are welcomed to a holding area and then sent to a computer room for a brief intake process to help match them with an attorney. Importantly, separate consultation rooms are provided to ensure private discussion of very personal business.

“We have child support issues,” Peterson said. “We have divorce issues. We have the fallout from felony and criminal convictions. We have a guy who has a work-related issue. We have some personal injury issues. The only thing we really can’t do is criminal law. If we can’t help them here today, we’re [going] try to hook [them] up with someone who can.”

“What I hope that people find shocking is that research shows that 80 percent of people that have a legal problem don’t even know that they have a legal problem,” said Melissa Moss with the Florida Bar Foundation, which supports the Escambia Project in conjunction with Pathways for Change and Legal Services of North Florida.

Justice on the Block is one of three legal aid services being modeled for the state as part of the initiative. Smart Intake is another.

“This technological tool uses artificial intelligence to determine the likelihood based on the answers to questions whether this problem is a legal problem,” Moss said. “[Smart Intake] literally gives us a percentage, how likely is it that this person has a legal problem and then specifically what legal problem it is.”

So far, Al Henderson is impressed with Smart Intake and its possibilities. Henderson is director of economic and social services for Community Action Program, which volunteered to host the Justice on the Block event on October 17.

“When you look at interjecting legal services into the continuum of care, that is something we’ve not been able to do effectively until, I think, now,” said Henderson, pointing out that in the past Community Action Program would have sent a referral, with no real system for client follow up.

“Here, we’re looking at Smart Intake. We’re looking at partnering; what actually happened with this client. We’re actually doing a better job of actually leveraging our resources.”

Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
Resident Billie Ruth Graham departs after receiving legal assistance during the Oct. 17 Justice on the Block event in Pensacola.

Local resident Billie Ruth Graham took part in the Justice on the Block event at the CAP office, “I have two children. I got a granddaughter, got one on the way. I’m having a little problem with the Indian Reservation and a little owed child support. I got a court order.”

Graham was heading out after meeting with an attorney to discuss her situation. As an ex-felon, she was grateful for the free legal help.

“It’s a good program to help people to get to where they need, because some of us have been in trouble and can’t afford to get the things we need,” said Graham. “It was a blessing, a light at the end of the tunnel now that I know that I can…I got some ideas now to where I can move and get things done that I  need done in my life, you know.”

This is the kind of feedback that backers of the Escambia Project want - or need - to hear.

Because Justice on the Block is a legal services pilot program, the event is evolving, with organizers applying lessons learned and best practices in terms of marketing, location, space availability, and broadband capability in order to expand attorney participation via Skype.

Thus far, there have been two events, including the first one in August at Pathways for Change. For the events a combined 15 volunteer attorneys served 45 residents.

More tweaks will be made to increase those numbers and improve the quality of the experience before the next Justice on the Block is held in 2018.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.