NEW LEXINGTON – In Perry County free legal aid is not easy to come by. While individuals facing major criminal charges are often given a court-appointed lawyer, many others with legal problems are not given this benefit. Often, a person is left adrift in a sea of legal jargon as they are trying to handle issues like a custody dispute.
Having observed this Luann Cooperrider, judge of the Perry County Juvenile and Probate Courts, decided to found a free legal clinic to help people process their legal issues. The clinic has been in operation since 2008, but had recently been closed due to concerns over COVID-19. It will begin operations again on Sept. 7 and thereafter will be offered the first Tuesday of every month.
“I would see people walking in the hallways, paper in their hands and a confused look on their face,” Cooperrider explained. “I thought, why can’t I start a free legal clinic? So I pulled some people together and we started it.”
Volunteer attorneys from the surrounding area run the clinic. It has no funding; everything is done pro-bono by attorneys donating their time. Cooperrider cannot help directly with the clinic herself due to her position as a judge; instead she takes an advisory role.
Generally, those who come in for the clinic are there for domestic matters; issues such as divorce, custody and visitation. Other common cases involve issues such as evictions and property rights. However, while these are the most common cases, the clinic is there for counseling on any type of legal scenario.
“We are one of the few clinics that do every case,” Cooperrider said.
The clinic does have some disqualifying factors for potential users. The clinic is income-eligible, so it only caters to individuals who do not have the money to hire legal counsel. Individuals who already have a lawyer on hire are also barred from using the clinic. Cooperrider said that about 85% of people who come to the clinic are eligible and every year the clinic serves around 100 people.
One of the primary purposes of the clinic is to help individuals who have completed the requirements of their criminal sentence and now are eligible for having the record of their crime erased or “voided.” Most of the time, crimes like these are minor charges such as petty theft that may have happened when the person was younger.
Despite their minor nature, records of these crimes can still harm a person while seeking employment. Upon seeing someone with a criminal history versus someone without a criminal history, an employer is often more likely to pick the latter. Removing the criminal history of an individual makes employment easier for them which also helps makes it easier for them to avoid further criminal behavior.
“I believe people change. People can change if given the opportunity,” Cooperider said.
Generally, records of minor crimes can be removed with the exceptions of violent crime, substance abuse and sexual crimes. The reason these cannot be removed is because they are used to track a person’s history with the related subject. This is particularly important for those with crimes related to substance abuse.
Occasionally the clinic will have a day where they set aside an hour of allotted time to target a specific issue. For example, one day a year they do an event where they target custody cases and try to connect fathers with their children. This is done in association with the Forever Dad Fatherhood Program for which Cooperrider is a member of the board. Another specialty day is the Good Deeds program where the clinic targets property issues, such as getting a copy of a land deed for an individual.
Rolf Whitney is an attorney who helps with the free clinic. He came to the clinic after moving to Perry County and by chance, moved in beside Cooperrider, who promptly asked him if he’d like to help out with the clinic. It was his neighborly obligation to cooperate.
The majority of problems Whitney said he has faced in the clinic are primarily domestic/relation type issues, but he has seen a wide range of cases.
“Everybody comes in asking about a particular issue. The wildest questions imaginable are the ones you are confronted with,” Whitney said.
The majority of lawyers who help with the clinic do so out of good will. Whitney said when he helps people in the clinic it gives him a good feeling to help others along.
“Everybody’s problem they have is such a serious problem to them,” Whitney said. “Once you talk to them, their problem is not nearly as big as they thought it was, and it’s easy for them to handle once they realize what it is.”