NE Pa. clinic provides legal shoulder to lean on

By By JOE HEALEY

KINGSTON, Pa. (AP) — They provide free legal services so small problems don't get big.

That's the mission of the Back Mountain Free Legal Clinic at St. Therese's Church in Shavertown, said attorney Bernard Walter, a volunteer at the clinic.

Walter said that one time when he was working at the clinic, an elderly Italian couple were in need of help for a heartbreaking situation. "They came and sat down in the office and were in tears," he said.

Their adult daughter was in the hospital dying of cancer and she didn't have a will.

"The daughter was estranged from an abusive husband who would inherit everything when she died, including family heirlooms and souvenirs from her childhood," Walter said.

The next morning, Walter and the family drove to the hospital to visit the dying daughter. She explained what she wanted in her will and it was witnessed by two nurses and notarized by Walter.

"She was so happy, so relieved, so at peace with herself and her family, everyone felt the joy, and the next day she died," Walter said. "It wasn't just about inheriting money; it was about honoring family's history. She wanted her pictures, her jewelry, her furniture, to remain with the people she loved."

The clinic is open 6:30 to 8 each Friday night, except the Friday after Thanksgiving and Good Friday.

The volunteer lawyers handle landlord-tenant issues, property line disputes, divorces, custody battles, dealing with creditors, contract disputes, collecting on a debt, employment problems, disputes between children when a parent dies, problems dealing with old age and criminal offenses.

OUTREACH MISSION

Walter said the clinic began in 1996 in the basement of St. Therese's Church, but has since relocated to St. Therese's Religious Education Building at 64 Davis St.

The Rev. James Paisley, pastor at St. Therese's, said the church houses the clinic and a medical clinic as part of its community-outreach mission.

"Our outreach is helping people in need, whether it's bringing food to individuals just out of the hospital to our prison ministry," Paisley said. "It's a service to the community."

Walter said every visit is private and confidential. Most visitors come from the Bank Mountain, Kingston and Wilkes-Barre areas, but some come from as far away as Scranton, Tunkhannock, Nanticoke and Hazleton.

Walter said the services are free to anyone who walks in the door, regardless of income, race, religion, ethnicity or sexual preference.

As an example, he said that one time a woman who was going through a divorce came in. She and her husband had an apartment building in Seattle and each thought the other was handling the mortgage.

The building had gone into foreclosure and was scheduled to be sold in a tax sale, even though both had money to pay the bill.

"I took out my cellphone, called the bank in Seattle, where it was only about 3:30 in the afternoon. I talked with the mortgage manager, explained the situation, negotiated a resolution, faxed a confirming memo Saturday morning from my office, and the problem for this couple just went away, like magic," Walter said.

In addition to Walter, volunteering at the clinic are lawyers Pat Dougherty, Dave Aikens, Michael Bendick, Mark Buffalino, Pat Dougherty, Mike Melnick, Tom Mosca and Christopher O'Connell.

EXPERIENCED HELP

Dougherty, who's made a name for himself as a personal-injury lawyer, has been volunteering at the clinic since the early 2000s.

"I've been practicing law 41 years, and this gives me an opportunity to draw back on my law school days," he said. "At the clinic we see all different factions of the law. Domestic, real estate, magisterial issues."

Walter said the lawyers are happy to help. He said lawyers are required by the Rules of Professional Conduct to provide such public service.

The legal clinic slogan is "A little light can dispel great darkness." Walter said prevention is the best way to handle issues in medicine and in the law.

"Any kind of problem tends to be easier to handle when it is small, at the beginning, but people understandably tend to wait until a problem gets really huge, more than they can handle, before going to see a doctor or a lawyer," he said.

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Information from: Times Leader, http://www.timesleader.com

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