by Richard Prior
If the program had a formal name, it would be “Adopt a Lawyer.”
The intent is to help more people facing civil charges who can’t afford lawyers.
Defendants in criminal cases have been guaranteed an attorney since the Gideon decision of 1963, Michael Figgins told the Northeast Florida Paralegal Association (NEFPA) Thursday.
“If you’re charged with a crime, if you’re facing jail time, you get a free attorney,” said Figgins, executive director of Jacksonville Area Legal Aid. “However, if someone is taking you to court to take your child, take your home, take away your livelihood, you get absolutely no help.
“You’re on your own. You’re at the mercy of the opposing side.”
There is no right to counsel unless a criminal charge has been filed, Figgins told those at the luncheon meeting, held at the Omni.
“In most circumstances,” he said, “people are losing quality indicators of their lives by going to court without counsel every day. It’s happening as we speak.”
Standing against “the gale winds of injustice” are the two dozen attorneys at JALA, all of whom are “swamped, overwhelmed,” Figgins said.
“Eighty percent of the people who come to us we cannot help,” he said. “We try the best we can. We give them advice, but that’s all we can do.
“Obviously, Legal Aid needs a lot of help — from attorneys, paralegals, from all walks of life, all types of skills.”
Legal Aid gets a significant amount of help from local attorneys who provide pro bono help. A lot more help is needed, Figgins said.
“Pursuing your profession requires doing what is right,” he said. “I cannot emphasize that enough. We serve clients, and we also have to serve the overarching goals of our community.
“At Legal Aid, what we do impacts the community of Jacksonville every day, by giving hope to the poor, giving them access to the courts and giving them redress against injustices.”
The paralegals attending the luncheon — or anyone else in practically any walk of life — can help by “adopting” a Legal Aid lawyer.
“Take him or her out of lunch,” said Figgins. “Find out what he or she is doing. And find out what you can do to help them.
“I’m sure that when you find out what they do, and when they find out what you can do, that a relationship will soon flourish. You can be as flexible or rigid as you want.
“As an adopted parent, you call the shots.”
Anyone interested in finding out what’s involved, and arranging for “visitation and adoption,” should call Legal Aid at 356-8371, Ext. 316.
“I challenge this organization — together or perhaps in groups of two or three — to adopt each of the Legal Aid attorneys,” said Figgins. “Legal Aid is something everyone should do. It’s the right thing to do.”
The NEFPA board has been discussing ways to help Legal Aid, said Margaret Costa, president of the association.
“I believe there is some way this association can find to help JALA,” she told the membership. “You’re part of the legal community. You need to take an active part and be responsible for helping out those who cannot help themselves.”
As grim as the situation may appear, Figgins is an incurable optimist.
“One thing about being in Legal Aid,” he said, “is you are optimistic. You have to be.
“It would be very easy to get pessimistic and say, ‘Nothing’s every going to change that quick; I’m going to work in a big firm, too.’
“Your career path is the law. It must lead to increased humanity and sanity for everyone. That’s what the law does; that’s what it should do — in our profession and for everyone who needs our professional services.”