We are a nation pledged to equal justice under the law, however justice can come with a price tag. Attorney fees, court fees and filing fees shut off many low-income Americans from access to the courts. According to the national Legal Services Corporation, less than one in five low-income individuals in need of legal representation have access to a private attorney or legal aid. An organization hoping to reverse this trend in South Carolina is South Carolina Legal Services.
South Carolina Legal Services (SCLS) is a statewide law firm that provides civil legal services to protect the rights and represent the interest of low-income South Carolinians. SCLS represents clients in education, housing, bankruptcy, foreclosure, employment, tax, family, elder, and consumer law. To meet financial eligibility, clients must fall within 125% of the federal poverty guidelines (income thresholds determined by household size) or 200% in extenuating cases, such as those involving a protective order.
Kimaka Nichols-Graham is a managing attorney at SCLS’s Greenville office and has been with the firm since 1998. The cases that most frequently come across her desk include custody, housing, public benefits, and consumer finance. Ms. Graham hopes to help educate the public about the SC Help Program—a mortgage assistance program created by the economic stimulus of 2009. The SC Help Program allows qualifying homeowners going through unemployment or financial hardship to avoid foreclosure and apply for up to one year or $36,000 in monthly payment assistance. Ms. Graham states that her office actively reaches out to the HR departments of companies that are downsizing and connects with them in order to disseminate information about the program to their employees.
“The SC Help Program helps those going through unemployment stay in their homes,” says Ms. Graham. “At SCLS we counsel those applying for services and help them fill out all the necessary forms. Individuals can apply online at www.sclegal.org and be connected to a counselor who will assist them with getting their paperwork in on time.”
In addition to legal counsel, SCLS provides free education clinics on foreclosure, debt collection, bankruptcy, divorce, and other legal matters. Subject to availability, organizations can contact SCLS to have an attorney speak to their group at no cost. SCLS also shares free legal information on their online legal library, which contains self-help court-approved forms.
“The most rewarding aspect of working at SCLS is the opportunity to help those who otherwise would not have access to the judicial system,” states Jay Duvall, SCLS staff attorney in the Greenwood office. “The need for counsel by low income South Carolinians is tremendous, especially in rural areas.”
Realizing this need, SCLS has expanded its offices from Columbia to Greenville, Spartanburg, Charleston, Conway, Georgetown, Greenwood, Orangeburg, Rock Hill, and has satellite offices in Aiken, Saluda, Marion, and Anderson. It is SCLS’s hope that this expansion will grant low-income families the tools to help them exercise their rights and increase their access to legal services.