Empowerment and Education
Through partnerships with organizations around the state, including shelters for people who are homeless, civil legal aid programs help New Hampshire’s most vulnerable residents learn how to navigate the legal system and advocate for their rights.
Both organizations write and distribute pamphlets explaining the legal rights of tenants, homeless persons, seniors and other vulnerable populations and hold conferences, for example, to educate landlords about housing discrimination laws.
People who call 603 Legal Aid are often given step-by-step instructions for filing court paperwork and arguing their case in court, where they often face experienced professional attorneys — and win.
Crystal's Legal Aid Success Story
When COVID-19 left Crystal without a job, she told her landlady she would be late with her rent. Her landlady gave her 24 hours to find the money, or she’d be kicked out. She told Crystal the state’s temporary moratorium on eviction didn’t protect her because she rented a room, not an apartment or house.
Crystal, who’d never missed a rent payment, was 12 weeks pregnant and about to become homeless. Losing her housing would also jeopardize Crystal’s upcoming graduation from drug court, a milestone she’d worked hard to reach.
“I tried to talk to her about giving me time until I got my unemployment or stimulus check,” Crystal said. “She didn’t care. I couldn’t afford to lose my place to live.”
Crystal’s drug court case manager suggested she call 603 Legal Aid. Paralegal Steve McGilvary gathered the relevant facts and immediately advised Crystal of her rights, including how to file an emergency court petition to stop her landlady from carrying out her threatened ejection.
Steve informed Crystal that she was protected under the state’s temporary moratorium on evictions, even though the courts were closed.
Crystal filed the paperwork the next day and within a few hours had an order prohibiting the threatened eviction.
“I don’t know what I would have done without Steve’s help,” Crystal said. “Legal aid gave me confidence to deal with the situation the right way and understand the law. Now I know I have the law on my side and what my rights are. And I didn’t before.”
Being able to remain in her apartment allowed Crystal to focus on finding a new job. She did and is paying her landlady her overdue rent. “That was always my plan,” Crystal said.
Brian's Legal Aid Success Story
Getting his mail one day, Brian* noticed yellow tickets stuck to the front door of his apartment building. They were from the power company, threatening to shut off the electricity because of unpaid bills.
The landlord had left the bills unpaid as he negotiated to sell the building. But when the deal fell through, he had left Brian in the dark.
Brian tried to call the electric company and offer to pay the bill himself, but the company wouldn’t talk to him because he wasn’t the account holder. He started to panic.
With intense asthma, COPD and sleep apnea, Brian relies on electric machines to help him breathe. And his daughter relies on him.
“I can’t go to sleep without using these machines, or I’ll stop breathing,” he said. “Losing power for who knows how long, that’s just not an option for me.”
A case worker at New Hampshire Housing told Brian to call LARC.
“The first conversation, it was an in-take call, and I didn’t know what to think. I had already gone three days without answers from anyone,” he said.
Within hours, a LARC advocate called Brian and advised him to contact the Public Utility Commission’s Consumer Advocate, who might be able to prevent the shutoff. LARC also advised Brian of his right to file a petition at court to restore the electricity should the landlord allow it to lapse.
“I went from having no options, feeling like the big guy is stomping on me, to feeling like I don’t have to have someone with big power controlling everything,” Brian said.
“LARC was a way to get the information that a normal average Joe wouldn’t have any idea how to find.”
*Client name has been changed
Kathy's Legal Aid Success Story
Kathy worked as a case manager for a local resource program, connecting people in need with agencies that could help them. Sometimes, she referred low-income clients with civil legal needs to the Legal Advice and Referral Center. She never planned on needing legal help herself, but says “I’m so grateful LARC was there when I needed them.”
After years working in a high-pressure role helping people in need, health issues made it impossible for Kathy to continue working. While out of work, she drained her 401k account, but still fell behind on her mortgage, and the lender scheduled a foreclosure auction of her home.
“I didn’t want to admit I could be disabled. I wanted to return to work,” she said. “When the auction happened on the front lawn, I was inside the condo just mortified. I couldn’t believe it.”
She eventually received federal disability benefits and moved to affordable rental housing. However, the lender who had auctioned her house sued her for the balance on the loan after the foreclosure sale. With no money to hire a lawyer, Kathy turned to LARC.
An advocate at LARC counseled Kathy as to her legal rights and options regarding the law suit and how to address her other debts. Her advocate also helped her draft pleadings to defend herself in the law suit.
“LARC will walk me through the papers, not talking down to me but explaining what everything means so I can understand it,” Kathy said. “They ask me what it is I want to say for a filing. They’ve helped me know I was very capable, that I’m intelligent, even though I’m disabled. It gave me a sense of empowerment to know I could do this myself, with them by my side.”
LARC also connected Kathy to pro bono bankruptcy counsel, which will help her discharge the debts she can not pay, including the balance on the mortgage. With this help, Kathy will soon emerge from this crushing financial situation free of the law suit and free of debts she could never pay.
Because of LARC’s legal assistance, Kathy says, she felt empowered to address and resolve her situation, and for the first time in a long time she did not feel alone in her financial battle.
Kathy is now left with a few dollars at the end of each month. For the first time in a long time, she has money for grocery shopping. For the first time in a long time, she can change the oil in her car.
One day, Kathy called LARC to celebrate finally having $100 in her bank account again.
“One hundred dollars in a bank account may mean nothing to most people, but to me, it is everything,” she said. “I don’t know what I would have done without LARC. I’d just be floundering.”
Linda's Legal Aid Success Story
David Cole, a lawyer based in the Upper Valley of New Hampshire, believes that every attorney should take it upon him or herself to accept at least one pro bono case per year.
“I believe it is part of our societal duty as attorneys to assist people seeking justice who are unable to afford legal help,” he said. “We’re professionals, and having a duty is what separates a profession from a job.”
David usually performs pro bono services for two mental health organizations serving Grafton and Sullivan counties. He also accepts pro bono work after analyzing a client’s financial situation as well as their personal situation.
Earlier this year, he received a call from 603 Legal Aid regarding a potential client named Linda Miller who needed help with estate planning.
“Legacy planning documents such as wills and powers of attorney require signatures from multiple witnesses and notaries,” David said. “I felt it was important to help Linda in this case because she is housebound.”
Linda wanted to make sure all of her wishes would be respected after she passed, a topic she brought up with her social worker, Erika Sharbaugh, on several occasions.
“As people enter the final chapters of their lives, what happens after they pass away becomes a very real worry,” said Erika. “In almost every scenario, they find themselves wondering how they can get their affairs in order without cost being a burden.”
“I know it would be hard on my kids if I didn’t have a will,” Linda explained. “Everything would go into probate and then they’d be at the mercy of the courts.”
Erika suggested that Linda seek the help of a pro bono lawyer through 603 Legal Aid.
“As a social worker, I find legal aid very helpful,” Erika said. “I refer someone to legal aid every few months.”
After 603 Legal Aid connected Linda with David, David and his assistant, Vicky Prouty, coordinated a plan taking into account current COVID-19 safety guidelines and Linda’s inability to travel. Meetings were held virtually at first before transitioning to visits at Linda’s home. Together, they helped Linda draw up a power of attorney and a will.
Erika sat in on meetings to help interpret the language of the documents for Linda, but David and Vicky were very responsive and communicated in a way that was easy for Linda to understand. Linda also observed how David and Vicky handled her case without any prejudice towards her age or income.
“They didn’t treat me like an older person or a poor person,” Linda said. “They simply treated me decently as a regular person.”
Linda is thankful to all the lawyers like David who accept pro bono cases for people who otherwise cannot afford legal representation.
“It’s good to know that there are lawyers out there who aren’t all about the money but want to help people in their community.”