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Published: Monday, 2/2/2004

Local agencies do legal aid in more counties

If success is measured by response, then the effort by two local legal aid agencies to handle poor and disadvantaged clients in 15 additional counties as far south as Dayton has been a positive achievement.

The concern after nearly a month in operation is making sure lawyers with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Inc., and Legal Aid of Western Ohio respond to the clients.

The executive directors of both agencies, which share a board of directors and administrative services, said technology such as the Internet and its new Web site is proving up to the task.

On Jan. 1, ABLE and LAWO, formerly Legal Services of Northwest Ohio, began providing aid to poor and indigent people formerly serviced by the Legal Aid Society of Dayton and the Western Ohio Legal Services Association in Lima.

The latter two organizations were facing financial hardships that severely could have limited the services of each, said Joseph Tafelski, who leads ABLE. ABLE and LAWO already served clients in 15 northwestern Ohio clients.

Robert Clyde, executive director of the Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation, one of the major funders for legal aid programs in the state, said the foundation approached ABLE and LAWO originally about taking on the area to improve services.

“ABLE and [LAWO] both have great reputations and we have been impressed how they have been able to pull this off so far,” Mr. Clyde said. “They have the best intake system in the state and one of the best in the country for legal aid agencies. I think they will be able to put any concerns about service to clients to rest.

“I think it s a little early to tell if we re getting what we hoped for, but they are off to a good start.”

The 30-county area ABLE and LAWO now covers is the largest for a legal aid agency in the state. Kevin Mulder, who heads LAWO, said it has opened offices in Lima, Dayton, and Springfield to complement its offices in Defiance, Fremont, Sandusky, and Toledo.

The Legal Aid Line, a bilingual telephone call center that takes initial calls, has been flooded with clients from the southwestern part of the state. R. Edward Marks, managing attorney at ABLE, said the call center can handle about 120 calls a day but is receiving twice that amount.

He attributes the increase to clients in new areas going without service for about a month while those agencies shut down. Mr. Marks said clients have been able to get through, but it may take a couple of tries. He said he expects to number of calls to begin leveling off to the 120-call range soon.

One pleasant surprise has been the use of the Web site www.legalaidline.org. Mr. Tafelski said 150 people have applied online for services since the Web site started this year.

Mr. Tafeski said the interactive Web site - dubbed “ClientsWIN,” for Web Intake Network - to connect with clients is likely the first for a legal aid group in Ohio and is one of only a handful in the nation.

Patti Robb, ABLE and LAWO spokesman, said the Web site is targeted to clients who work irregular hours, who need emergency assistance during nonbusiness hours, or who are reluctant to give information by phone.

“We have a lot of other agencies looking at what we do,” Mr. Tafelski said. “People are taking advantage of the Web site a lot more than we anticipated. This gives people a real alternative in reaching us, and they can set up appointment times. The more people who use the Internet, that frees up a phone line.”

The Web site allows a client to send his or her name, contact information, and legal concern via the Internet. Mr. Marks said that information is passed on to an attorney for a follow-up call at the time the client indicates.

Mr. Marks said the Web site has allowed ABLE and LAWO to handle clients quickly and allowed attorneys to call them at the clients convenience.

- CLYDE HUGHES



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