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Family Law For Families the Law Forgot

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In 1999, Central Dallas Ministries was inundated with callers looking for legal help. Most of these callers were poor, but not poor enough to qualify for help of the Legal Aid of Northwest Texas. And yet they had pressing matters they needed help with -- from divorce to child custody to getting restraining orders against abusive husbands. Today, CDM runs a family law clinic, one of the only places the poor or near-poor in Dallas can go for legal aid.

“It’s a popular misconception that it’s easy for poor people to get legal help,” says CDM’s Director of Development, Jeremy Gregg. “That’s true if you’ve been charged with a crime -- you’ll be provided an attorney. But if it’s a civil matter -- say, you want to get divorced from an abuser -- or get a restraining order, it can be very expensive, and often these are matters of life and death.”

Tomorrow, CDM’s Legal Action Works Center is conducting a a Continuing Legal Education course on family law at the Belo Mansion beginning at noon. (Lawyers are required by law to attend a certain number of CLE courses each year.) The purpose of the course is twofold: to educate lawyers interested in practicing family law pro bono, and to raise money and awareness for CDM’s law clinic.

Gregg says CDM’s L.A.W. Center is one of the only places in town poor people can go for legal help. The Legal Aid of Northwest Texas, which is government-subsidized, has very restrictive requirements concerning who they can take on as clients. Other firms dedicated to helping the poor sometimes have a specific mission -- helping illegal immigrants, for example -- and, as a result, cannot help other segments of the population.

And across the board, regardless of mission or how they are financed, these sorts of legal aid firms tend to be understaffed and have little money to work with. Gregg says the CDM firm has an operating budget of about $400,000 and that last year they closed 300 cases.

“Poor people need this work desperately," he says. "If they’re trying to get divorced from an abuser, or get a restraining order against someone who is sexually abusing their child, often we’re the only place they can turn.” --Jesse Hyde

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