For more than two decades, federally funded legal services programs single-handedly provided representation in civil cases to those with little or no income. However, in 1982 the Legal Services Corporation experienced a twenty-five percent decrease in federal funds, inevitably resulting in massive staff reductions at the legal services programs it funds and, in some cases, the elimination of programs. Faced with the inability to continue meeting the needs of clients, legal services programs across the country turned to attorneys in the private sector for help.
In an attempt to sustain services in our community, the local legal services program, Legal Aid of Western Missouri (Legal Aid), with the support of bar associations throughout its service area, created the Volunteer Attorney Project (VAP). The concept was to coordinate an effort with private attorneys who were willing to donate their time and experience to those in need. As hoped, the idea and collaboration have succeeded and as a result, eligible residents of western Missouri may now receive free legal assistance from attorneys in private practice.
Clients assisted through the Volunteer Attorney Project are referred by your local Legal Aid office.
Through VAP, each year more than 900 area residents receive pro bono (free) legal counsel or representation for problems involving: consumer law, such as unfair sales practices, contract disputes and bankruptcy; dissolutions of marriage (divorces) and other family law matters; housing issues, from landlord-tenant disputes to real estate; governmental benefits, including Social Security and unemployment compensation; and various other civil legal matters. Clients are initially screened and interviewed by Legal Aid staff, who first determine whether the case comes within Legal Aid’s case priorities and is suitable for referral to the VAP program. When a case is referred to VAP, it is placed with an attorney whose interest and area of expertise match our client’s needs. This helps to insure that clients receive the highest quality of service.
In Kansas City
The Kansas City Metropolitan Bar Association, the Lawyers Association of Kansas City and the Kansas City Bar Foundation co-sponsor the project serving residents of Jackson, Clay and Platte counties. VAP in Kansas City began operation in 1982 with an initial enrollment of 46 attorneys. Today, in addition to the over 780 individual attorneys participating, a total of 8 law firms and in-house corporate counsel have joined VAP’s panel of volunteers. Each year these volunteers deliver services to hundreds of Kansas City area residents.
In Northwest Missouri
Serving the counties of Andrew, Atchison, Buchanan, Caldwell, Clinton, Daviess, DeKalb, Gentry, Grundy, Harrison, Holt, Linn, Livingston, Mercer, Nodaway, Putnam, Sullivan and Worth is the Northwest Missouri VAP (NWMVAP). Co-sponsored by the St. Joseph Bar Association, this program has operated through Legal Aid’s St. Joseph Office since 1984. Presently, 77 attorneys have agreed to provide services through the project and annually donate approximately 100 hours of legal services.
In Southwest Missouri
The VAP program serving the counties of Barton, Bates, Jasper, McDonald, Newton and Vernon is coordinated through Legal Aid’s Joplin Office. Currently 3 area attorneys are enrolled in the project. The majority of cases referred through the Southwest Missouri Volunteer Attorney Project (SWMVAP) involve family law issues, including dissolutions of marriage and child custody. Additionally, to address the great need for dissolutions of marriage, the project provides assistance through Pro Se Dissolution (do-it-yourself) classes.
In West Central Missouri
The Warrensburg Office of Legal Aid coordinates the West Central Missouri Volunteer Attorney Project (WCMVAP) serving Benton, Camden, Carroll, Cass, Henry, Hickory, Johnson, Lafayette, Morgan, Pettis, Ray, St. Clair and Saline counties. Co-sponsored by the Johnson County Bar, this program provides representation to clients in a wide range of legal matters. More than 30 area attorneys have accepted referrals through this program.
Beneficiary Deed Project – The primary goal of the project is to assist low-income homeowners to pass their homes on to their intended beneficiary when they die, by preparing beneficiary deeds. This will help to reduce the number of homes with clouds on their title in low-income neighborhood, which is currently a serious community problem. This, in turn, will make it easier for second generation owners to obtain high quality home improvement loans and maintain their property A secondary goal of the project is to provide basic estate planning for low-income seniors and give them the opportunity to prepare wills, medical directives and powers of attorney.
Domestic Violence Intervention Mentorship Program – Requests for assistance in obtaining dissolutions of marriage are greater than other areas of the law. There are talented, experienced attorneys who may not have the time to handle individual cases, but are willing to serve as mentors to newer attorneys and help them work their way through a divorce case. Accordingly, we have created the Domestic Violence Intervention Mentorship Program. Along with a step-by-step training program, mentees will receive written instructions, forms and other applicable materials. Following, the Volunteer Attorney Project (VAP) will assign a case to each mentee and pair them with an experienced family law attorney who will act as their mentor and guide them through the case.
Education Project – The project offers pro bono legal representation to families with children who are struggling in the educational system. Pro bono participants work with children and school administration to ensure the right to a free and appropriate public education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Although many protections exist in the law, without an advocate, children can go for years without the services to which they are entitled, diminishing their chances for success later in life. The goal of the project is to help children receive the educational services they need to succeed.
Elderly Outreach Program – The projects offers legal counsel & advice to those 60 years of age and older. Volunteers conduct monthly outreach sessions at “senior sites” sponsored by the Mid America Regional Counsel (MARC) in Kansas City.
Homeless Outreach – Volunteer attorneys also make regular visits to shelters for the homeless to offer counsel & advice to residents. It is the intent of the program to help identify and resolve legal issues that may result in ending a client’s homelessness
Low Income Taxpayer Clinic Attorney Panel – This project provides pro bono assistance to low income taxpayers in resolving their controversies with the IRS. Our project director screens the cases and then passes them on to the volunteer attorneys. Often, a problem with the IRS is the most frightening issue a low-income taxpayer has faced. Attorneys help with issues such as getting levies released from social security benefits, submitting Offers in Compromise to settle the IRS debt, or assisting victims of domestic violence in obtaining Innocent Spouse relief from a joint tax debt with their batterer.
Pro Bono Program for Bankruptcy Litigation – Offers legal representation to eligible clients who have been sued in an adverse action in response to their bankruptcy filing. A specially trained panel of 22 attorneys has signed on to provide volunteer services in this area.
Project Consent – is a collaborated effort with Children’s Mercy Hospital. Through the project pro bono legal representation is offered to grandparents and other non-custodial caregivers seeking powers of attorney and guardianships for the children in their care. As a result, these children can receive appropriate medical and dental treatment, proper school placement and the reassurance of a stable home environment.
Pro Se Dissolution of Marriage Clinics – Through the project participants receive step-by-step classroom instruction on how to represent themselves in obtaining dissolutions of marriage. To be eligible, participants must meet financial guidelines, are not in dispute with spouse regarding child custody and own no real property to be divided.
Transactional Law Project – Created as a joint effort of The BRIDGES Project of the Municipal Correctional Institution of Kansas City (MCI), the Kansas City Metropolitan Bar Association (KCMBA) and Legal Aid of Western Missouri’s Volunteer Attorney Project (VAP) the Transactional Law Project offers free legal assistance to qualified non-profit agencies that serve persons who are homeless or persons with diagnosable mental health issues. Some of these organizations are distracted from their mission by legal problems that the organizations themselves face. The project is designed to strengthen these service-providing organizations by solving their legal needs (so organizations can focus on their clients’ needs). Legal services offered include: incorporation as not-for-profit, contract review/negotiations, regulatory compliance and other business law matters.