Southwestern Pennsylvania Legal Aid (SPLA) fills the gaps in the justice system when help is needed in civil litigation.
The organization assists clients with legal proceedings such as obtaining orders to prevent abuse, battling custody and enforcing the Fair Housing Act, said director Brian Gorman.
“We give people access to justice in the legal system,” said Gorman.
Since the civil justice system does not have a lawyer, many people face complicated legal processes on their own when they cannot afford to hire a lawyer.
“People applying for PFAs, custody of children – without us people wouldn’t have a lawyer, and without a lawyer it’s almost impossible to navigate the system,” said Gorman.
The three attorneys and five paralegals serve the counties of Washington, Greene, Fayette and Somerset. Gorman said the majority of their customers need assistance with PFA cases.
Custody cases are the second most common local emergency and housing issues are third. He said more customers asked for help with housing problems during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“People called and said, ‘Our landlord said they were going to change locks or shut down our utilities.’ We are trying to prevent this, ”he said.
The team also assists the community with financial litigation such as unemployment and disability, as well as deletion and sealing of records, usually in non-convict cases or under the Clean Slate Law.
“People need this when they need a job or are helping to get a better job,” he said.
He said they also help people resolve debts or disputes with the IRS.
Gorman said the office opens about 1,000 new files each year. Some cases are closed with a phone call; others, such as custody cases, last for years.
He said her casework is almost evenly split between the Washington and Fayette counties, with about 10% of her casework being in the Greene and Somerset counties. While Washington County has a higher population, Fayette County has a higher poverty rate, Gorman said.
“We’re essentially the law firm that represents low-income people in Fayette County,” he said.
Gorman said they help anyone who needs help getting a PFA order, but some of their other cases have income limits.
The organization is funded by federal, state, and local grants, but Gorman said they could do more with additional funding.
“We need to prioritize our casework. We get money and then we do the best we can with that money, ”he said.
Nationally, he said that only about 1 in 3 people who seek help from a legal counseling center are fully served, with one person being partially served and the third not being served.
“We just run out of time or resources. We are busy with our number of cases, ”he said.
He said donations are helpful to the organization as grants are linked to the use of the money.
“(Donations) help because it gives us the opportunity to use the money as we see fit,” he said.
Gorman said they work with rotating staff in the Uniontown office via a hybrid model of remote and in-person work. He said they are able to support people in person, over the phone and through virtual meetings.
“We don’t miss any cases because of COVID,” he said.
For more information or to make a donation, visit spla.org.