Meet Jacksonville's 'other' legal aid service

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  • | 12:00 p.m. January 2, 2006
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by Bradley Parsons

Staff Writer

Just three floors of offices separate Three Rivers Legal Services and Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, but the two are miles away in terms of name recognition around town.

In part that's because JALA has a three-decade head start. When JALA started in Jacksonville 30 years ago, Three Rivers was getting its start in Gainesville and Lake City. Two years after opening its Jacksonville office, Three Rivers is still struggling to get the word out about the "other" legal aid service inside the Major B. Harding Center for Justice on Adams Street.

Not that Three Rivers wants to compete with JALA. The two perform separate but similar missions in Jacksonville. With a staff of about 30 attorneys, JALA has the resources to get elbow deep in its clients' cases, taking them to trial when necessary. With a staff about half the size of JALA, Three Rivers focuses on phone consultations and other brief services.

"We're not trying to compete with JALA," said managing attorney Thomas DePeter. "There's plenty of poor people out there with legal problems to keep us both busy."

In fact, the two services enjoy a complementary relationship. Three Rivers focuses on phone consultations, which ideally buys JALA's attorneys time to focus on litigation. JALA even includes a referral to Three Rivers on its phone message.

The Legal Helpline is the centerpiece of Three Rivers' Jacksonville office. The Helpline answers legal questions on issues likely to confront the city's working poor. Questions about utility payments and disconnects, employment issues, evictions and family issues are commonplace, said DePeter. The Helpline can be reached at 394-7450 or toll free at (866) 256-8091.

By focusing on brief services like initial consultations, Three Rivers increases the number of people it can help. DePeter estimates that about 70-80 percent of legal matters can be handled through consultations at the outset of a legal issue.

"We can give you advice on filing for divorce or we can advise you of your rights with debt collectors. We give you peace of mind and make sure you know your rights," said DePeter.

It's a different approach than DePeter was used to while working in the Gainesville and Lake City offices. Those are full service offices providing litigation services as well as consultations.

"It's more time in the office and not as much in court and I have much more limited contact with the people we help. A foreclosure case can drag out for years and you develop a relationship with your client. You can get emotionally involved," he said.

But DePeter said he's interested to see what kind of effect Three Rivers can have in Jacksonville while focusing strictly on brief services. As a complement to JALA, DePeter believes Three Rivers can have a significant impact in making the legal system work for Jacksonville's poor. And maybe make a name for itself in the process.



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