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Service provides legal aid, fills need

BY KATHLEEN FOX kfox@paducahsun.com

A local program that provides free legal counsel in domestic matters for residents living in poverty continues to grow to meet increased need.

The McCracken Family Court Domestic Relations Clinic gives free legal advice once a month in a one-on-one format in matters of family law including divorce, child custody, visitation and support. The program began in June 2012 thanks to a $10,000 grant renewed yearly from the Kentucky Bar Association and has continued to flourish with funds doubling in size to $20,000 in June 2013, according to Natalie Bash, managing attorney at Kentucky Legal Aid Paducah office.

She said oftentimes the issues raised are simple questions about filing paperwork, legal precedents and courtroom etiquette that help to streamline the court process. Clinics are available for low-income individuals and families, classified within the federal poverty guidelines of more than 110 percent of their income, a number that varies depending on the number of people in a given residence.

"The need is definitely bigger than we imagined with those needing assistance," she said. "These classes are a way to help people learn about the system and reduce stoppages in the courtroom."

Bash said the number of attendees ranges from about 10-15 per month but has increased in each of the past six months. The volunteers aided 161 clients in 2013, and organizers expect that number to increase as awareness increases. The meetings also are open to those who have come in the past for follow-up queries.

About a dozen Paducah family law attorneys volunteer their time with seven at each monthly session. Practicing attorneys are also the primary source of monetary donations to the philanthropic arm of the state bar association, which funds the clinics.

"People have preconceived ideas about lawyers being heartless and greedy, but our local lawyers have been more than compassionate," Bash said. "They saw a need and have responded. It's a testament to the generosity of the profession."

The idea began as a collaboration between Bash and McCracken County Family Court Judge Cynthia Sanderson, who saw a need for a service to provide free advice for those who don't qualify for Kentucky Legal Aid. Sanderson used the example of a separated couple without children, who are in need of a non-contested divorce but cannot afford the legal costs.

"It's a tremendous help to those who haven't participated in the court system to help them navigate it," she said. "We have seen the need continue to increase, and the legal aid office couldn't meet those needs."

Organizers commend the uniqueness of the program's beginnings and its relationship with the McCracken County Bar Association, which is different from similar programs in larger Kentucky cities of Louisville and Lexington.

"We want to put this public service out there as much as possible to reach more people," she said. "It's such a worthwhile way to spend a couple hours and is provided at no charge."

The next free clinic is set from 4-6 p.m. Tuesday in the second floor conference room of the McCracken County Public Library on Washington Street. Additional sessions are scheduled for Feb. 11, March 11, April 8, May 13 and June 5. Clients should pre-register by calling 270-442-5518.

Contact Kathleen Fox, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8651 or follow @kathleendfox on Twitter.

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