Tahlequah Daily Press

December 27, 2013

Legal firm now has nonprofit status

By RENEE FITE
Special Writer

TAHLEQUAH — Cherokee County Legal Services, Inc. provides advice, representation, education and advocacy for those who are too poor to obtain them anywhere else.

Founded May 1, 2012 by Gayle McNamara, the organization recently received their 501c3 nonprofit status.

“We want to be Cherokee County’s community law office:  Affordable, approachable, friendly, and down-to-earth, be responsive to community needs, and address local issues,” said McNamara.

They serve Cherokee County residents who make less than 150 percent of the federal poverty rate. Clients pay an initial consultation fee of $25. If the matter can’t be resolved during the initial consultation, further legal fees are based on income and family size. There is a four-tier fee structure, from $25 per hour to $40 per hour. Fees are paid in advance, and can be spread out over a period of weeks or months, as the case progresses.

“To do what we do, we are always going to have to rely on the community for at least a small part of our support, which is why we are a nonprofit, McNamara said. “Connors State College has blessed us with an intern through their FOCUS program. Lorissa Austin is in the paralegal program. We need a computer so she can do Internet research and word processing. We hope someone who got a new computer for Christmas might be willing to give us a gently-used laptop.”

A walk-in clinic on Saturdays welcomes people without an appointment, and she hopes to open one in Hulbert soon.

McNamara recognizes legal needsin Oklahoma

McNamara said family law is what most people she sees need help with, including. uncontested and contested divorces, paternity cases, modifications of child support, child custody and guardianships.

The second greatest need is provide defense in criminal cases. The remaining cases usually involve small estate planning, wills and trusts, advanced directives for health care, powers of attorney, name changes, property disputes, and consumer issues such as foreclosure and collections. Bankruptcy services will be offered in the near future.

“The situation regarding criminal cases is extremely disturbing. Many people do not know that in Oklahoma a person accused of a crime is no longer automatically eligible for appointed counsel if they bond out of jail,” she said.

“There is a process to request re-consideration, but the application costs money and the applications are frequently denied. Consequently, many people facing serious felony charges face them without representation, leaving them to accept the State’s offer or attempt to conduct a trial by themselves.”

Oklahoma has the highest number of women in prison in the country, and I believe it is because women are the most likely to bond out of jail, and the least likely to have the funds to hire an attorney, she said.

“Oklahoma doesn’t have any more criminals than any other state – they just have fewer people who are accused of crime who have access to representation,” said McNamara.

She also believes there is a need to educate young people about the consequences of having children when they are too young to provide for them.

“Young men are ignorant of the issues surrounding paternity and their responsibility to support their children, even if they are not married. Young women don’t understand the consequences of relying on the government to support their children. This results in needless heartache and misery, for the parents, the children, and the community,” she said.

The issue of legal representation for the poor is a serious one.

“People lose their freedom, their children, their livelihoods and their possessions because they don’t have the money to hire legal counsel,” she said.  

To really do what we are designed to do, we need another attorney, she said, but attorneys who are committed to practicing poverty law are difficult to find.

“I would like to see Oklahoma lead the country, and prove Oklahomans really understand the Pledge of Allegiance and are committed to making “liberty and justice for all” a reality in their communities,” McNamara said

 “If we had all the money in the world, it would be great to be able to outfit a mobile law office that could travel to some of the outlying communities, since many clients do not have transportation. We could provide research and communications options for clients, especially the elderly, who do not have access to a computer, the Internet, or even reliable telephone service.”

Cherokee County Legal Services Inc. is located in the Habitat for Humanity building at 816 S. College Avenue.