Iowa lawyers offer justice for all

Iowa Legal Aid volunteers, staffers help Iowans in need

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Stephen Jackson Sr. was more than just a lawyer to Jaime. He became a father figure at a time when Jaime needed to change her life.

Jaime needed legal help with child-custody issues after removing herself from a domestic violence situation.

“I went to Steve for help with custody, and then he offered to help me with a divorce,” Jaime said. “I didn’t even ask, but he saw I was trying to change my life and he thought I was a good mom. It was a big relief to me. He really cared.”

Jaime couldn’t afford regular attorney fees, so she contacted Iowa Legal Aid, which has 236 volunteer lawyers like Jackson in Linn County who provide services to low-income individuals and families.

Iowa Legal Aid last year celebrated its 35th anniversary of providing free civil legal services for low-income individuals and families.

Funding cuts

The non-profit organization continues to have its federal funding cut every year and operates under a hiring freeze today, said Jim Kringlen, managing attorney for the Cedar Rapids office.

As of Jan. 2, the organization had 20 fewer staff attorneys, two fewer legal assistants and eight fewer support staff than it had in 2010.

At the same time, demand for services has increased over the last few years because of the recession and housing mortgage crisis as funding for the non-profit went down more than $1 million from 2010 to 2011.

The 10 regional offices closed 19,357 cases in 2012, serving 46,625 people but that is still 27 percent less than the number of cases closed in 2010, as a result of the cuts, according to Iowa Legal Aid information. According to the recent census data, 499,474 Iowans meet the income eligibility guidelines, as compared to 359,741 in 2000.

Kringlen said the Cedar Rapids office went from eight to four attorneys. However, the good news is lawyers across the state continue to make up for the cuts by volunteering about 50 hours or more a year, he said.

Kringlen has worked in the Cedar Rapids office for 22 years because it’s rewarding work, not for the money or recognition. A staff attorney entry-level salary is $40,250, which is much lower than other public service positions like public defender or a county attorney.

Jackson said individuals like Jaime is why he started providing legal services without pay one afternoon every month through the Volunteer Lawyers Project of Iowa Legal Aid.

“I feel like I get more out of it than the clients,” said Jackson, who practices family law with Lynch Dallas in Cedar Rapids.

Jackson has been volunteering since the early 1990s. He recruited his son, 6th Judicial District Judge Stephen Jackson Jr., before he became a judge, along with other family law attorneys to give up one afternoon a month. Jackson usually works on custody or divorce cases.

Floods of 2008

Jim Holmes, a Cedar Rapids attorney, said he has volunteered for many years because it’s important to give back to the community and “you always have time to help.”

Holmes said his business slowed in 2008 when the flood hit, but low-income residents needed tax and foreclosure help, so he was available more. Holmes said some of the tax issues and foreclosures of the flood victims were difficult for various reasons, including sorting through past tax information and dealing with out-of-state lenders, so those cases took more of his time. He continued to take on volunteer cases after his practice got back to normal, and he usually puts in 50 hours a year, with about four cases going at a given time.

Steve Swift, a Cedar Rapids attorney, said he remembers back in the day when attorney John Shea, along with Jackson, set the example by volunteering and recruiting others.

“They emphasized the importance of being involved in the community — it was part of our civic rent,” Swift said.

Swift said he usually takes on one or two volunteer cases a year. He’s working on a tax case now. He also often refers clients to partner agencies of Iowa Legal Aid to help with foreclosure or mortgage issues, taxes, shelter for domestic violence victims and a referral service for older Iowans needs and health problems.

“In many cases, the clients won’t know there is assistance available,” Swift said.


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