SWPA Legal Aid provides assistance in PFAs, child custody and housing | Helping the Helpers

‘People would call and say ‘Our landlord said they’re going to change the locks or shut off our utilities.’ We try to prevent that from happening’

By: - December 1, 2021 6:30 am

Southwestern Pennsylvania Legal Aid Director Brian Gorman discusses the services the organization provides Fayette and surrounding counties, including assistance with protection-from-abuse orders and child custody cases (Uniontown Herald-Standard photo)

By Alyssa Choiniere

Southwestern Pennsylvania Legal Aid (SPLA) is filling in the gaps in the judicial system when assistance is needed in civil litigation.

(Capital-Star file)

The organization assists clients in court processes such as obtaining protection-from-abuse orders, fighting for child custody and enforcing the Fair Housing Act, said Director Brian Gorman.

“We give people access to justice in the legal system,” Gorman said.

Because the judicial system does not provide for an attorney in civil cases, many people are left to navigate complicated legal processes on their own if they cannot afford to hire an attorney.

“People filing for PFAs, child custody – without us people wouldn’t have an attorney, and without an attorney it’s nearly impossible to navigate the system,” Gorman said.

The three attorneys and five paralegals serve the community in Fayette, Greene, Washington and Somerset counties. Gorman said the majority of their clients need assistance in protection-from-abuse cases.

Child custody cases are the second most common need locally, and housing issues rank third. He said more clients were calling for assistance with housing issues during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“People would call and say ‘Our landlord said they’re going to change the locks or shut off our utilities.’ We try to prevent that from happening,” he said.

The team also assists the community with financial litigation such as unemployment and disability, and with expunging and sealing records, typically in cases that did not result in a conviction or through the Clean Slate Law.

“People need that if they need a job, or help getting a better job,” he said.

He said they also help people resolve debts or disputes with the IRS.

Gorman said the office opens about 1,000 new files every year. Some cases are completed with a phone call, and some continue for years, such as custody cases.

He said that their casework is split almost evenly between Fayette and Washington counties, with about 10% of their casework in Greene and Somerset counties. While Washington County has a higher population, Gorman said, Fayette County has a higher poverty rate.

“We’re essentially the law firm that represents low-income people in Fayette County,” he said.

Gorman said they assist anyone who needs help acquiring a protection-from-abuse order, but some of their other casework has income limits.

The organization is funded through federal, state and local grants, but Gorman said they could do more with additional funding.

“We have to prioritize our case work. We get funding, and then we do the most that we can with that funding,” he said.

Nationally, he said that only about one in three people who go to a Legal Aid branch for help are fully served, with one person being partially served and the third person leaving unserved.

“We just don’t have any more time or resources. We’re maxed out on our case load,” he said.

He said donations are helpful for the organization because grants come with requirements on how to use the money.

“[Donations] help because it gives us the ability to use the money as we best see fit,” he said.

Gorman said they are operating through a hybrid model of remote and in-person work, with a rotating staff in the Uniontown office. He said they are able to assist people in person, on the phone and through virtual meetings.

“We’re not missing any cases because of COVID,” he said.

Alyssa Choiniere is a reporter for the Uniontown Herald-Standard. Readers may email her at [email protected] Helping the Helpers is a cooperative effort between the Pennsylvania Capital-Star and the Uniontown Herald-Standard. 

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