Recently, I attended a community conversation about rules, fees, and fines, and how they impact individuals and families. I attended the meeting with other staff members from GLS to see if any interesting tidbits might come up. As the organization’s grant writer, I’m always on the prowl for stories to weave into my work.
I sat next to my coworkers, all attorneys, as the conversation began. Halfway through, I realized I had no idea what they were talking about. I looked over at my coworker, who was consulting a stack of papers. “What are they talking about?” I whispered.
“There are different statutes for everything,” she told me, and handed me a six-page list of fines. I scanned it – there’s an administrative fee for noncriminal traffic violations of $12.50. For killing or injuring a cow, you have to pay “the greater of up to twice the gross fair market value or up to twice the gross loss caused plus attorney’s fees.” One description is simply titled, “Offender Fee: $50.”
“You have to pay for a public defender,” another coworker whispered. “Isn’t that crazy?”
The number of rules and regulations attorneys must learn frequently overwhelms me. As someone who is decent with languages – I took Spanish and French in high school and Swahili in undergrad – it has surprised me how difficult it’s been simply to understand legal acronyms (it took me a week to figure out OBO just means “on behalf of”).
There are strict ethical rules about client confidentiality, conflicts of interest, attorney conduct, as well as procedural rules governing court filing and appearances. My coworkers navigate these rules on a daily basis, all while working with people with life-threatening issues. Many of our clients are seniors facing evictions or foreclosures. Many are survivors of domestic violence or human trafficking. Others have experienced homelessness and are just looking for a new start.
One good example of the “quiet” work legal aid does is with the case of “Maria.” She came to GLS, a victim of extensive physical domestic abuse and living on less than $10,000 per year. She needed help getting a divorce and sole custody of her sons, in the event her abusive husband should ever re-enter the United States.
At the final hearing, Maria was awarded sole parental custody, with no time-sharing and all decision-making authority to obtain passports and care for the children. The court also reserved on the issue of child support, so if the father ever re-enters the country, Maria can go back at any time to obtain a support order.
Most people don’t think about divorce as being life-saving. But for Maria, a divorce meant she could retain her name and freedom from her abuser. She never has to worry about him having access to her children or using them against her. With the divorce, he won’t be able to make end of life choices for her should she ever be incapacitated.
Before I started working here, I didn’t think legal aid had the power to change lives. Truthfully, knowing the details regarding fees and fines is not super flashy. Getting an eviction client an extra 60 days to find new housing doesn’t seem life-saving. A successful divorce might seem minor. These wins fly under the radar. They are quiet in impact, yet powerful.
This holiday season, I’m thankful to have a job that has taught me to value thoroughness and detail, to adopt different perspectives, and to celebrate all wins, even if they seem small.