March 16, 2015 02:11 PM

If indigent criminals are entitled to free representation, why aren’t us law abiding citizens? What most people do not know is that Lafayette has a program that does just that. The Lafayette Volunteer Lawyers program was created by the Lafayette Bar Foundation to provide free legal services to our community. While the public defender’s office provides free criminal representation, LVL provides free civil representation — for everyday people who need help getting through what can often be very trying times.

Take the case of Sarah Smith (not her real name). Sarah had been married to her husband for years before she sought assistance of LVL. Like most families, the Smiths lived together and had children together. While from the outside everything appeared normal, Sarah’s husband had been physically and mentally abusing her for years. He was well known and well liked around the local community, operating a cash-based business. While Sarah on numerous occasions had sought help through the court system, due to her financial situation she would represent herself, while her husband was represented by attorneys. Her cases were continuously dismissed due to her lack of legal knowledge. Eventually, after a particularly severe beating with a club, she fled her home and obtained free representation through LVL. Ultimately, through LVL and its volunteer lawyer she was able to obtain a protective order, take possession of the home and gain custody of their children. Without the help of LVL, Sarah and countless others like her would be left to fend for themselves.

As most of you know, there really is no such thing as a free lunch, or, as I like to say, “Nothing is free.” The Lafayette Volunteer Lawyers provide pro bono legal services to the needy in our community, but while it may be free to the client, it is not free to the bar foundation. The LVL program is funded through private funds, a significant part of which are due to the efforts of the Lafayette Young Lawyers Association. LYLA organizes an annual golf tournament, Birdie With The Bar, which raises money to help continue LVL as a free program for those who need it.

The cost of legal services is ever-increasing, beyond the financial reach of many of our citizens, and the need for pro bono legal services is at an all-time high. To be abundantly clear, the lawyers who represent clients through LVL are 100 percent volunteers. They do not receive a penny for their time or advice, but there are nevertheless costs associated with the LVL program, like office supplies, postage, court costs.

While the protective order program that Sarah benefitted from is a significant part of the LVL program, it offers other benefits to the community, such as helping the homeless obtain birth certificates, and also is behind a cutting-edge program, Counsel-On-Call. Like the other LVL programs, Counsel-On-Call is free and available to the general public.

Every Friday from 9 a.m to 10 a.m., attorneys are present at the parish law library in the Lafayette Bar Association office on Johnston Street across from Albertsons to meet with and field any and all legal questions by members of the public. Usually the questions involve divorce, custody or child support issues, but Counsel-On- Call is not limited to those topics. The Counsel-On-Call program has been such a success that this past year the Louisiana State Bar Association developed a similar program known as Lawyers in Libraries, placing attorneys in libraries throughout Louisiana. LVL is truly at the forefront of pro bono legal services, but none of it is possible without funds raised at the annual golf tournament.

So get your clubs and register to play. While all funds go to the Lafayette Bar Foundation and Lafayette Volunteer Lawyers, which are non-profit organizations (read tax deductible), Birdie With The Bar is also a good bang for your buck. It is open to everyone. It is not limited to attorneys; in fact, a large part of the past participants have been non-attorneys. It is scheduled for Friday, May 29, at The Wetlands Golf Course on University Avenue, between Lafayette and Carencro. It is a four-person scramble, with free range balls, carts, food, drinks, door prizes and more. It is a great event for a great cause. Even for those who do not play golf, it is a good opportunity to purchase a team for clients or customers. You can register online here or call (337) 237-4700.

Jason A. Matt is a personal injury/trial lawyer with a degree in mechanical engineering. He practices at the Law Offices of Matt & Allen, focusing on injuries resulting from offshore, automobile, work and product defect accidents. Contact him at jmatt@mattandallen.com.

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