Civil Legal Aid Program at the Cleveland Public Library Meets Local Needs

Kendra Morgan /

The Cleveland Public Library and The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland had been working in partnership for years, offering several legal aid workshops on general topics that were open to public. But Aaron Mason, the library’s Assistant Director, Outreach and Programming Services, saw an opportunity and a need to develop a more in-depth program. Mason knew the intention behind the workshops was good, but didn’t think they were having maximum impact for patrons. Patrons attending the events were often desperately in need of civil legal help that was beyond the scope of what could be covered at the workshops. Additionally, roughly 66% of Cleveland residents over the age of 16 are considered functionally illiterate, which provided further challenges that were difficult to address in open sessions. Mason determined that the library could serve more people and address more community needs by transitioning to monthly legal aid clinics that could serve individuals one-on-one.

The library expanded the partnership with Cleveland Legal Aid, and together they developed a budget, plan, and agreement to increase the library’s offering of free legal advice to patrons in-need. Cleveland Public Library was able to draw from an endowment for programming and services to expand the program; the funds support the coordination efforts and expertise of Legal Aid’s staff attorneys who handle cases as well as recruit and schedule pro bono attorneys to work in the neighborhood clinics. Today, there are 12-13 clinics per year offered in branches throughout the city, allowing the program to reach people from diverse racial and financial backgrounds, and it serves as one of the library’s top-performing services.

Library Director Felton Thomas is a strong supporter of the program, “We have people lining up for the program an hour before we open. These individuals and families are impacted by civil legal issues that are preventing them from moving on with their lives.” Unlike criminal cases, where individuals have a constitutional right to an attorney, Melanie Shakarian, Director of Development & Communications at The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, shares that the same is not true of civil legal issues. “If your home is being foreclosed, or you’re the victim of domestic abuse and need a divorce from your abuser, or you’re being unlawfully evicted, those are all examples of civil cases, and there is no right to counsel if you cannot afford one. You could be at risk of great harm to your health, safety, and economic security and not have the right to an attorney.” About two-thirds of patron questions during the clinics are addressed during the consultation, and up to a third of the cases are referred back to The Legal Aid Society for continued representation and support.

Marketing the clinics is a joint effort of the library and The Legal Aid Society. The Legal Aid Society has produced over 70 brochures on a variety of community legal education topics and distributed more than 80,000 brochures in the last year; 24,000 of those went through the library. High demand for and interest in the civil legal aid program brings patrons from across the city into the library’s different branches. Mason sees that providing a neutral space for lawyers to meet with patrons is both helpful and desirable. Library events include support from an on-site coordinator, several Legal Aid Society attorneys, and volunteers from local law firms.

While patrons wait to speak with an attorney, the library staff can introduce them to other library programs and services. Parents will often bring their children with them, which gives the staff the opportunity to connect with parents and children at the same time. Families can register for library cards and children can take library materials home. Mason shares that “Doing things as a group is another benefit to the program, you’re there with other people in an inviting space and you see that you aren’t alone. Other people are experiencing the same challenges.”

The Legal Aid Society sees the library partnership as an opportunity to meet people where they are. Shakarian states, “Putting our services where and when people need help is increasingly important to us and it’s one of the reasons we partner with the library. The library is a place of trust in the neighborhood and they are meeting a range of community needs.”

The efforts of the Cleveland Public Library and The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland serve as a strong example of a partnership that has evolved using the collective strengths of the organizations to better serve the community. Great work!

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