Some people live real horror stories. When a young man, let’s call him, Kevin Davidson, separated from his girlfriend in 2000, he began making court-ordered child support payments. But then five years later, his former girlfriend murdered their three children. She was convicted of murder, and began serving her life sentence in 2007. Justice done, right?
In addition to living with the horror and grief of losing his children, Kevin soon learned that he was still on the hook for those monthly child support payments. He turned to several agencies for help in getting the order lift ed, but to no avail. That’s when he turned to the Madison County Volunteer Lawyers Program.
“Those payments were a slap in the face every month,” says MCVLP Executive Director Nicole Schroer. “He was struggling emotionally and financially, and didn’t know where to go for help. Aft er searching on his own, he asked the Governor’s office for assistance. There seemed to be no precedent for his situation, but our volunteer attorney researched the issues and consulted with attorneys outside of Alabama, searching for a solution to this situation. Our volunteer attorney was able to get an order for the refund of all monies paid by the client since 2005. The arrearage order was rescinded, and he got back all the money he had paid.”
“I still get chills when I think about that case,” says Schroer. “To continue to deal emotionally with the loss of his children, as well as the financial pressures he was facing, was a constant reminder of what she had done to him. We were thrilled to be able to obtain this great outcome for him.”
It’s just one of many cases Schroer cites to show how MCVLP helps its many clients. What is truly amazing is the amount of good the program accomplishes with its limited resources. The tiny staff– Schroer is assisted by Arlana Johnson as director of volunteer development and engagement, while Hilary Gould serves as director of client and community outreach – strives to provide legal services for hundreds of low income clients each year who otherwise have no access to the legal system.
Equally amazing is the level of buy-in among local attorneys. Roughly half of the nearly 700 attorney membership of the Huntsville-Madison County Bar Association provides pro bono hours each year to the Madison County Volunteer Lawyers Program. Schroer points out that 30 of those attorneys provided more than 50 pro bono hours last year, and a few donate more than 100 hours annually.
“At the end of September we reported more than 1800 hours of pro bone service provided by our volunteer lawyers to our clients for this year. That number has been rapidly growing over the last several years.”
She is quick to point out that, despite Madison County’s high income level, nearly 13 percent of Madison County residents live at or below the federal poverty level. “We tend to forget that poverty exists right outside our door, that it really exists.”
Clients typically learn about the MCVLP through referrals by the courts, attorneys, former clients, or the MCVLP website. Schroer emphasizes that that no criminal cases are handled. “We also do not take any fee-generating cases. We don’t want to take potential revenue away from our volunteers.”
That still leaves a wide variety of civil cases to be handled – primarily uncontested family law cases, adoption cases, guardianship cases, debt collection cases, landlord tenant matters, and wills/medical directives. That last one is among the services most requested. “We oft en get calls from people, both parents and children, where a parent is dying and needs our help in draft – ing a will,” Schroer says. “I remember well an elderly woman with Stage 4 cancer who needed help draft ing a will and a health care directive. She wanted to ease the burden on her family, as best she could.”
Custody cases also come up frequently. “We may help a grandmother who has cared for her grandchildren their entire life and needs end-of-life help in establishing a new guardian. She just wants to make sure, before she dies, that the children are going to be cared for.”
Bankruptcy situations oft en arise, and Schroer says their volunteer attorneys oft en are called upon to educate clients on the difference between Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy. While MCVLP provides free legal services, the client must still pay filing fees and court costs. But many MCVLP clients can’t even afford that; in those cases, if a client files an affidavit of substantial hardship, even those fees can be waived.
MCVLP services go beyond just the indigent. Under the Alabama State Bar Association’s Wills for Heroes program, the MCVLP assists dozens of police and first responders with wills, power of attorney, and advanced medical directives. The program works with the Huntsville Police Academy to draft wills for new cadets.
In all of this, the lawyers go mostly unnamed and unrecognized. “I can tell you that a lot of lawyers perform pro bono services, not for the recognition, but because they feel a calling for service to the community.”