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Local Group Offers Legal Aid Services for Poor, Underserved Community

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Mission Waco
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Mission Waco's legal aid services are offered at the Meyer Community Center

With poverty comes many problems. Along with a low socio-economic status, many impoverished families face debilitating legal problems that continue to erode their income. For KWBU, SakinaHaji reports that one local organization trying to alleviate this.
 

According to the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, approximately 5.8 million people in Texas qualify for legal aid. But due to a lack of resources and funding, less than 20 percent of the legal needs of poor Texans are being met. Here in Waco, about 70 to 75 percent of Wacoans fall in the lower income category. Of these, there are many that need legal services, but they are simply not able to afford the fees of private attorneys.

Kent McKeever established Mission Waco Legal Services as a non-profit organization in 2012.

“The poor and marginalized communities that I worked with, I saw the need for advocacy and legal representation and this justice gap for people of lower socio-economic means," McKeever said. 

"The poor and marginalized communities that I worked with, I saw the need for advocacy and legal representation and this justice gap for people of lower socio-economic means." - Kent McKeever

 After working in full time ministry for 5 years, McKeever realized that many with lower socio-economic status face complex legal issues that they need help with. Starting without any funding or assistance, McKeever began at a minimum wage salary by taking on one case at a time. Through conversations with community leaders and other non-profit organizations, McKeever discovered that family law, immigration, housing, barriers to employment, and wills and estates planning are some of the most prevalent issues in the community. Through educating himself in these areas, McKeever began practicing in a large range of the law.

“In a matter of, you know, half a day I can jump from an immigration issue to a housing issue, then try and clear up some of these driver’s license holds so that can be difficult bouncing around," McKeever said. "Because these are very different areas of law." 

Now, Mission Waco Legal Services is able to provide direct representation in most of these cases. In addition to direct advocacy, they also have legal empowerment workshops and free legal advice clinics every first Monday of the month at the Meyer Community Center. People bring a wide array of issues at these legal advice clinics, and several local attorneys are present to try to provide some guidance.

At the most recent July clinic, a group of attorneys gathered over chicken sandwiches after a long day of work. They said that they try to do what they can for the applicants, but many times they simply listen to the issues and leave in frustration that they couldn’t do more.

On a typical Monday, there may be up to 25 clients visiting the clinic and about 5 attorneys.

5.8 million people in Texas qualify for legal aid. But due to a lack of resources and funding, less than 20 percent of the legal needs of poor Texans are being met.

  Most of the clients that come to the Monday clinics have complex family law cases. Since Mission Waco Legal Services is still unable to provide direct representation for these specific cases, they hope that other local attorneys will be able to give advice and take on some of these family law disputes. One applicant at the July clinic had a very complex family law case.

“I’m completed exhausted out of money; I don’t have any money," said Daryl Smith, who's been residing in Waco for a few weeks now, after being forced out of his house in Fort Worth due to his ongoing divorce proceedings. "And I’m behind on child support, spousal support. They’re entering enforcement orders against me, and so forth.”

Smith came to hoping to find lower cost representation because he was unable to pay his previous attorneys. If he doesn’t find a lawyer, he will have to represent himself going forward. As he filled out the preliminary paperwork, Smith disclosed some details of the procedural haggling he has faced since his case began in October.

In addition to his divorce, Smith is convinced that he is facing court corruption that needs to be resolved before his divorce can move forward. His case was assigned to Dominic Braus, a personal injury attorney here in Waco. Smith sat down with Braus in a private office room above the cafeteria to go through his case.

Despite sympathizing with Smith, Braus was ultimately unable to provide much guidance for his case. He explained that this is an exceptionally complex case that will need assistance beyond what the clinic can provide.

“We don’t have full time attorneys on staff that are able to take cases on a regular basis," Braus said. "And this is something that is going to need some full time attention I’m afraid.”

Mission Waco Legal Services has a list of volunteer attorneys that they reach out to periodically with cases such as these that can’t be helped further at the legal advice clinic. According to McKeever, a handful of these cases have been seen through successfully on a pro bono basis. For those cases that aren’t taken up by attorneys, some clients choose to continue revisiting the legal advice clinics to continue receiving advice for their case. 

In the past four years, the non-profit organization has helped more than 1000 individuals and families in Waco. McKeever hopes that moving forward, the legal aid organization will be able to expand to reach more people with legal needs in the community.

“We would like to almost become like a non-profit law firm for the community where we have different areas of specialization, which we are doing now but it’s spread pretty thin with only a couple of attorneys," McKeever said.

In addition to helping lower income residents, Mission Waco Legal Services is also a resource for local attorneys and law students. A large number of students from Baylor, Tarleton, and MCC are able to serve at the advice clinics to gain legal experience and a better understanding of poverty.

“We just want to invite people to get involved in any way that they can. If they have a need or if they want to serve, and it could be both, so we invite them to come join us," McKeever said. 

McKeever continues to emphasize that the success of Mission Waco Legal Services is a community effort. From funding to volunteers to education – everything comes from and returns to the community.