TALLAHASSEE – Legal Services of North Florida (LSNF) first began providing free civil legal services to low-income individuals and families in 16 Florida counties in 1976.
Although countless individuals have received life-changing services in those 40 years, Deputy Director Leslie Powell knows there are still many qualifying north Florida residents who may need LSNF’s help.
Specifically, Powell said LSNF helps 12 to 20 percent of the income-eligible population in the counties it serves, meaning as much as 88 percent of those who qualify for LSNF’s services have not used them. To help counter this issue, LSNF is focused on using technology to provide access to justice for all who qualify.
Powell said there is no legal task too small that may help turn someone’s life around.
“Even something as simple as helping to clear a credit report can help in the long term,” Powell told the Florida Record.
She added that other community agencies are sometimes pulled in to help after determining “what are all the things that need to be addressed” for an individual client to get the help he or she needs.
In addition, Powell and staff attorney Chris Del Marco said the legal aid services provided by LSNF not only help the individual and family clients, but the community as a whole. Powell said studies have shown that crime decreases in communities with better access to the justice system, and that those in communities with access to the justice system generally continue to have faith in that system.
Del Marco and Powell both spoke about the "snowball" effect that can quickly occur when legal issues begin to mount, especially for low-income clients. As an example, Powell said an issue that keeps a client from being able to drive could easily lead to the loss of a job, which could lead to debt collection lawsuits. On a community level, helping one person avoid foreclosure on a home keeps that homeowner’s tax money coming in and reduces blight in the neighborhood.
“When a (low-income individual) is under pressure, one problem can create a snowball effect,” Del Marco said.
Making matters worse, Powell said trying to address non-criminal legal issues without at attorney “puts people’s lives and the community at risk.”
Del Marco said LSNF also serves low-income individuals and families who are elderly and disabled who are “vulnerable to exploitation” from predatory lenders and financial scams. She noted that LSNF recognizes that its clients “don’t have the same access to financial tools” that may help others address these sorts of problems.
Del Marco said the work also comes with a degree of personal and professional satisfaction from “seeing people’s lives get better,” through helping them get out of an abusive situation, keeping their house or transitioning from the foster care system.
“Seeing them being able to realize that they can take some confidence into other parts of their lives” is also satisfying, Del Marco said.
According to the LSNF website, the organization “is working hard to meet the legal needs of children, elderly, victims of abuse and the disabled.” LSNF’s priority areas of representation include support for families, preserving the home, maintaining economic stability, safety, stability and health and serving populations with special vulnerabilities. As a result, LSNF’s attorneys work on cases involving family law, housing, public benefits, employment, education and health care issues.
LSNF is one of seven legal services organizations in Florida funded primarily by the Legal Services Corp., a private, not-for-profit corporation created by an act of Congress to ensure low-income people have equal access to the courts nationwide.