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Legal clinic provides free advice, resources to those who discover it
When a Vashon man rented an apartment on the Island only to discover days later that it was infested with rats, he didn’t know where to turn. The landlord who had carefully crafted his lease refused to budge, and the man didn’t have the resources to take him to court.
Mary Van Gemert, a volunteer lawyer at the Vashon Legal Clinic, smiled wryly as she related the story. “That landlord knew what he was doing,” she said.
Unfortunately for the landlord, Van Gemert also knew what she was doing. Meeting with the man at the Vashon Legal Clinic, a free monthly clinic put on by the King County Bar Association, she pointed him toward the Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project, which provides legal services on housing issues to low income tenants. She urged him to act fast based on the rigid time frame involved in a lease issue.
“He needed some legal help to assert his rights in a timely manner,” she said.
Bob Tobin, another volunteer attorney and the clinic’s coordinator, said that while the clinic provides valuable legal advice to those who don’t know where to turn and oftentimes can’t afford attorney’s fees, the free service isn’t advertised well by Vashon or the county ,and many don’t know it exists.
“We’re here to serve,” Tobin said, matter-of-factly. “If there are more clients that need legal advice, were happy to provide it.”
Islander Berneta Walraven, a former attorney who has volunteered as a legal assistant at the clinic for more than a decade, said she is shocked that more don’t come to the clinic for free advice.
“A lot of people don’t know they can call a number and see a lawyer for free. That’s a huge value,” she said.
While the clinic can see up to eight clients each month, the roster always has open appointments, Walraven said. “I don’t think in 10 years it’s ever been full,” she said.
In fact, not one Islander signed up to see a lawyer at the July clinic. At the August clinic earlier this month, Tobin and Van Gemert met privately with three clients who they said had diverse issues, but ones typical to the clinic.
One person sought advice about responsibilities in a divorce. Another had questions about the county’s obligation to maintain roads. And another wanted to know if they had grounds to take an off-Island nursing home to court over a payment issue.
One woman who met with Tobin that evening and wished to remain anonymous said she found out about the Vashon Legal Clinic a few years ago after a contractor botched a construction job at her home and refused to reimburse her. Unsure what to do, she began to research small claims at the Vashon Library, where a librarian learned of her problem and pointed her to the clinic.
She was pleased with what she called the practical advice and information Tobin gave her and returned this month to discuss another unrelated issue.
“I never did go against him legally, but I did get the (construction) problem solved,” she said. “It’s a wonderful service because is gives you options and a starting point, whether or not you want to pursue it.”
Like most of the clinic’s clients, the woman said she probably couldn’t afford to seek legal advice elsewhere. What’s more, she added, she would hate to pay for services only to find she had no legal grounds in a situation.
“I have occasionally spent money on lawyers, and it was a waste of money,” she said with a chuckle.
Sessions at the clinic, which happens the first Thursday of each month at the Vashon Senior Center, last about half an hour. Two of the six lawyers who staff the clinic provide clients, who aren’t required to provide income information, with advice and direction on a range of legal topics, from child support issues to bankruptcy. Similar clinics are offered all over the county, and while the lawyers who volunteer at Vashon’s clinic live on the Island, they all practice off-Island.
Tobin said the volunteer attorneys interpret contracts, explain legal rights in various situations, and provide advice on how Islanders should move forward on what are often delicate legal matters. They can also advise people on whether a case would stand up in court or may be worth hiring an attorney for.
Oftentimes, Tobin said, the clinic is a starting point for clients who are then directed to other Seattle-area clinics that offer free or low-cost legal services. There, they can get advice from attorneys who specialize in the area they need help in.
“A lot of what we do when people come into the Vashon clinic, we kind of screen what the legal issues are and sometimes refer them to specialty legal clinics,” he said.
A well-dressed man who also visited the clinic that night said he, too, has paid for legal services and can now no longer afford to do so, despite an unresolved legal issue.
“I don’t have any money to pay for lawyers,” he said. “They got all I had.”
He recently heard about Vashon’s free legal clinic after seeking advice from a friend.
“Had I known that there was this clinic on Vashon Island, I would have been here a long time ago,” he said.
That evening Tobin pointed him to another free clinic in the Seattle area where he could get more specialized advice on his issue.
Bill Tobin, who is Bob Tobin’s brother and has volunteered at the clinic throughout its 20-year existence, said he has seen interest in the clinic’s services come and go in waves. Overall, he said, it has never been used as much as he would expect.
“I’ve always kind of been puzzled by that,” he said. “We’ve had campaigns from time to time to get the word out, and it hasn’t had a significant impact.”
While at the end of the month the clinic may only have helped handful of people, Bill Tobin said, those who get advice — whether about construction, rats or more serious legal topics — almost always seem grateful for the opportunity.
“The people who are there really seem to appreciate it,” he said.
Bob Tobin said he and the other attorneys can only assume there are many who don’t know about the Vashon Legal Clinic, and they would like to make more aware of the free services it provides and eventually take on more attorneys as well, providing a wider range of expertise.
“The service exists to help Vashon residents,” he said. “The more people who are aware who need that help, the better.”
The Vashon Legal Clinic is open the first Thursday of each month at 6 p.m. at the Senior Center on Bank Road. To schedule an appointment, call the King County Bar Association at 267-7070. Walk-ins are also welcome.
Attorneys interested in volunteering at the clinic or those interested in becoming a volunteer legal assistant should contact Bob Tobin at 463-6409.