Balancing the scales of justice

John Wolff is an attorney with the new Northwest Justice Project office in Pullman. The office will serve people in Whitman, Asotin and Garfield counties.

Free legal assistance and representation for low-income eastern Washington residents facing noncriminal legal problems is now available on the Palouse, thanks to a new service in Pullman.

Two attorneys — Madi Bates and John Wolff — recently joined the Northwest Justice Project legal team to represent residents of Whitman, Garfield and Asotin counties, which did not previously have access to local resources through the organization.

Wolff said this type of legal representation for low-income people is an essential service, because it affords justice to demographics who are normally neglected by the legal system altogether.

“We are attempting to level the playing field on behalf of people who otherwise couldn’t afford an attorney when they are required to go to the court system, which I think can be really intimidating and difficult to navigate,” Wolff said. “NJP tries to help them navigate that system.”

Funded by state and federal money, the Northwest Justice Project is Washington’s largest public, not-for-profit legal aid program. The organization employs more than 125 attorneys throughout the state who provide civil legal assistance and representation to low-income people in cases affecting basic human needs such as family safety and security, housing preservation, healthcare access and workers’ rights.

NJP also provides translation services for people facing language and cultural barriers which make navigating the justice system difficult.

“A lot of people are already paying for our services, so they shouldn’t be shy about reaching out and seeing if we can possibly help them,” Wolff said.

Issues such as disputed custody cases involving domestic violence, housing evictions or discrimination and employment issues related to workplace health and safety conditions are just a few of the situations in which NJP can provide free or low-cost legal assistance.

Bates said civil law cases — such as housing and/or property disputes, work injuries and complaints against the city — are one of the big legal areas NJP often tackles.

“There’s no constitutional right to have an attorney represent you in a civil law matter,” she said. “So what we try to do is balance the scales of justice and represent people who wouldn’t otherwise be represented when they’re going up against the state or a landlord who has an attorney.”

At the moment, Bates and Wolff have been working remotely to provide service to residents of the Palouse, but they plan to open up a physical office space in Pullman this September.

Bates said the satellite clinic does not have a limited focus, so she encourages anybody seeking legal counsel or representation to reach out and see if they can get help with their specific case or problem.

“Opening up this office allows NJP to have a physical presence in this area that really hadn’t received a lot of attention,” she said. “Now that we’re here, we can really take a close look at legal issues specific to this area and represent more people.”

Until their physical office space is opened up, Bates and Wolff said the best way to get in touch with them is through calling the program’s CLEAR (coordinated legal education, advice and referral) line, free of charge.

CLEAR phone representatives will ask prescreening questions about the caller’s financial and legal situations to determine if the case at hand qualifies for NJP assistance. If it does, the caller will be referred to NJP attorney affiliates close to home — such as Bates and Wolff — who can provide area-specific assistance and representation.

“Right now that might look like some advice and counseling, but once we’re more established, that’s probably going to look like more direct representation — really being the classic lawyer you hear about,” Bates said.

The CLEAR line is available to all Washington residents who live outside of King County, from 9:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Monday through Friday at (888) 201-1014.

Those ages 60 and older can access a designated line at (888) 387-7111.

General legal information, including self-help materials such as do-it-yourself forms, can be found at washingtonlawhelp.org.

“When in doubt, reach out,” Bates said. “That’s what we’re here for and we’re really excited to help be an ally to, and advocate for, the people in this community.”

Ellen Dennis is the news clerk at the Moscow-Pullman Daily News. She can be reached at (208) 883-4632 or by email at briefs@dnews.com.

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