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Originally published Wednesday, April 4, 2012 at 6:24 PM

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Filling a gap in legal coverage

New initiative gives the cash-strapped middle class more access to legal help.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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"Justice," Madsen said, "cannot only exist for people who have the money... MORE

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Washingtonians of moderate means now have a better chance of getting legal representation when they need it.

More than 350 lawyers have volunteered to adjust their fees on a sliding scale to accommodate people who are neither rich nor poor. The attorneys are part of a partnership between the Washington State Bar Association (WSBA) and the state's three law schools.

"Access to justice has become probably the central concern for the judicial system in the state of Washington and indeed across the United States," state Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara Madsen said at the program's unveiling Tuesday.

Justice is a commodity like any other in that, generally, more money means more access.

But justice is also much more than another product. It is central to democracy, and so there are efforts to balance the scales, usually mechanisms for securing legal representation for the poorest among us.

But a considerable swath of the population is not rich enough to pay and not poor enough for legal representation.

People are eligible for the Moderate Means Program if their household income is between 200 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty level for their family size. That would be household incomes between $45,622 and $91,244. The bar association said that includes about 30 percent of Washington households.

WSBA President Steve Crossland said that since the economic downturn, families in that income range have found it hard to afford an attorney when they need one.

The program offers help in three areas, family, consumer and housing law. The attorneys can expect to see a lot of divorce cases — among the most common reasons for involvement with the legal system — and landlord-tenant disputes, foreclosures and debt-collection cases.

As an example of why the program is needed, Madsen referred me to King v. King, a divorce case that came before the Supreme Court from Snohomish County. The wife, who did not have legal representation, ended up losing custody of the couple's three children and being ordered to pay attorney fees for her ex-husband, even though she couldn't even afford a lawyer herself. The Supreme Court upheld that ruling in 2007.

I read an analysis of the case that said there was evidence against Ms. King that should not have been admitted and evidence against her ex that should have been brought before the court. Ms. King didn't know how to do any of that. A long list of retired judges from around the state signed an amicus brief to the state's high court favoring Ms. King's position that the court should have appointed an attorney for her.

The brief was filed by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law and took the position that "the Washington Constitution's guarantee of equal justice is rendered meaningless if those unable to afford a lawyer in high-stakes cases are forced to litigate without representation." Some cases, including custody hearings, are excluded from that protection.

Such exclusions beg for some kind of systemic change, but in the meantime there is now a patch.

The Moderate Means Program began as a pilot program at Seattle University with students making the first referrals last June. Now the law schools at the University of Washington and Gonzaga University are participating. The bar association is footing the bill for lawyers to supervise the program.

Clay Wilson, who is working with students at UW and SU, described how it works:

People who need representation apply through the website, moderatemeanswa.org, or by phone message (855-741-6930) or are referred by other legal services.

Students interview applicants and make an initial assessment of each case. Wilson and his counterpart at Gonzaga, Laurie Powers, check the assessments, give students feedback and make the final decision on referral to an attorney.

Representatives of the law schools and the bar said the program has a number of benefits. Cases will likely move through court more quickly with legal representation on both sides. Law students will get practical experience. Younger participating attorneys will gain experience, too. And many litigants will be spared needless pain.

"Justice," Madsen said, "cannot only exist for people who have the money to be able to buy it."

That is the bottom line.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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