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Funding Cuts Force Office Closure in Big Rapids; Other Cuts in Legal Aid





                Funding losses of nearly $450, 000 from its annual budget in 2012 have forced Legal Aid of Western Michigan to make painful cuts to services.  Legal Aid, a non-profit organization providing free legal services to low-income persons and Seniors in critical civil legal matters, had an annual budget of $4.35 million in 2011, providing services in 17 West Michigan counties from seven offices.

                According to Michael Chielens, executive director, these cuts are especially difficult at a time when the need for services is increasing due to the high unemployment and a bad economy in the State, but Legal Aid has been left with no alternatives:  “Our funding has not grown with the need and, although we have been able to maintain services by ‘tightening the belt’ over the past few years, we have seen a reduction in our federal funding from the Legal Services Corporation from $1.92  million in 2010 to $1.57 million in 2012 (more than 20%) and our funding from the State Bar IOLTA program was also cut more than $100,000 for 2012 due to the low interest rates on Lawyer’s Trust Accounts.  There is just no way to absorb that without cutting staff and other major expenses.”

                At its December meeting, the Board of Directors made the decision to close the Big Rapids office effective April 1, 2012, and lay off two attorneys and a secretary in that office.  A third attorney from that office will transfer to the Muskegon office which will expand its range to provide legal services in three counties previously served from the Big Rapids location.  Mecosta county clients will be served from LAWM’s main office in Grand Rapids. 

                Chielens is committed to continuing services to those four counties.  Since implementation of a telephone hotline/intake partnership with CALL (Counsel and Advocacy Legal Line) in 2005, access by clients in the four rural counties served by the Big Rapids office had increased by nearly 100% with most of that increase in people receiving advice from attorneys by telephone; at the same time, the number of persons served in person at the Big Rapids office had declined by 40%.  Chielens stressed that those services are not being cut, “Low income and Seniors needing legal help will still call the toll-free number and the cases will still be transferred to a LAWM office if they need a lawyer to go to Court. The difference will be that the attorney who helps them will have an office in Muskegon or Grand Rapids.

      In other offices, some staff vacancies will not be filled and remaining staff have accepted cuts in salaries and benefits.  “We are really fortunate that we have an experienced and committed staff who are more concerned about meeting the needs of clients than their own,” said Chielens.


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