Volunteer legal experts head to Valley for free clinics

The Fresno BeeMarch 12, 2014 

Central California Legal Services is co-sponsoring three clinics, each delivering free legal help to the central San Joaquin Valley's poor and isolated.

The first clinic might mean big bucks for those working hard for low wages.

Legal Services will team with volunteer law-school students on Saturday in Fresno for a tax assistance clinic. The focus is on the earned income tax credit.

"It's said the earned income tax credit is the most effective federal program for moving people out of poverty," CCLS executive director Chris Schneider said. "But a lot of people don't realize they qualify for it."

Depending on income and size of family, a person qualifying for the credit could get a check for as much as $6,044. Schneider estimates that even in small Fresno County towns such as Firebaugh and Mendota, as much as $1 million or $2 million goes uncollected because people don't apply. He said research shows that one job is created for every $100,000 generated by the program and pumped back into a community.

"This is something people need to be taking advantage of, especially with the way the local economy is," Schneider said.

The three clinics are different in purpose, date and location.

Saturday's tax assistance clinic is at CCLS headquarters in downtown Fresno.

The second is Tuesday in Hanford. This will concentrate on the rights of low-wage workers.

The third is Wednesday in Earlimart, where low-income seniors can get help with issues such as estate planning.

The clinics have key similarities.

They are co-sponsored by OneJustice's Justice Bus Project. OneJustice is a nonprofit with offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles dedicated to bringing legal advice to the state's disadvantaged. The Justice Bus Project takes teams of attorneys and law-school students from big cities to rural areas.

Law-school students from San Francisco's Golden Gate University will be in Fresno. Students from Southern California law schools will be in Hanford and Earlimart.

Renee Schomp, Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow with OneJustice's San Francisco office, said only 800 of the state's 180,000 licensed attorney's serve low-income people for a career. These are public-interest lawyers such as Schneider.

Even if the poor found the money to pay, she said, many would struggle to find a lawyer. She said there's one attorney for every six low-income people in San Francisco while Merced has one for every 363.

"The term we use for this is 'justice gap,'" Schomp said.

Schneider said the clinics will introduce big-city law-school students to the challenges of the poor in America's breadbasket. He said he welcomes those who choose public-interest law for their lifetime's work. But, he added, those who choose a more profitable route still could be helpful to the Valley's poor if they've been changed by their volunteer labor here.

If so, Schneider said, "we'll be able to tap them to help provide legal services in the community."

Tarina Larsen is one of the Golden Gate law-school students coming to Fresno on Saturday. She's choosing public-interest law for a career.

"I want to have a large voice in effecting social change," she said.

Three free legal clinics

1.) Tax Assistance Clinic

Central California Legal Services headquarters

2115 Kern Street, Suite 1, Fresno

1 p.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, March 15

2.) Workers' Rights Clinic

Kings Community Action Organization

1130 N. 11th Ave., Hanford

6 p.m.-8 p.m., Tuesday, March 18

3.) Seniors Legal Clinic

Earlimart Senior Center

712 E. Washington Ave., Earlimart

10 a.m.-1 p.m., Wednesday, March 19

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or ghostetter@fresnobee.com. Read his City Beat blog at fresnobee.com/city-beat.

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