Duke law’s Civil Justice Clinic to help poor
Low-income Durham residents who need a lawyer but can’t afford one will get a boost from Duke Law School as it launches a Civil Justice Clinic.
The clinic will partner with Legal Aid of North Carolina, a nonprofit law firm with an office in Durham, that provides free legal services to those in poverty in civil matters such as housing and employment.
The clinic will welcome its first class of students next week. It will provide them real-world experience as they work directly with clients and enhance their litigation skills, according to Duke law professor Charles Holton, who directs the new clinic.
Holton will teach basic civil litigation skills at the school and offer a confidential forum where students can discuss their cases.
Housing matters involving tenant-landlord disputes will be a top priority at the clinic, Holton said.
He said the need for free legal help in civil matters is “tremendous,” especially because the Legislature’s recent cuts to Legal Aid have caused staffing cutbacks and heavier caseloads for the remaining attorneys.
“This is really an ideal opportunity for the law school to step in and help them, and at the same time provide very useful training for lawyers to be,” Holton said.
Each clinic student, under supervision, will act as the main counsel on at least one case before a court or administrative agency, and may work with teams of lawyers on other cases, Holton said. He hopes to have students work with Legal Aid attorneys on more complex litigation.
“My goal as a litigator with more than 40 years of experience is to teach them skills such as client and witness interviewing, how to assess a case, developing theories, putting together pleadings that reflect those theories, going through the discovery process, preparing for hearings on contested motions, and ultimately preparing and handling trials,” Holton said.
Only second- and third-year law students will participate in the clinic. Each student will be responsible for three or four cases, allowing the clinic to serve 30 to 40 clients at a time in Durham and surrounding counties.
Holton said he’ll measure success by the number of people the clinic serves. “We appreciate the fact that people need lawyers,” he said. “Whether they win or lose, we’ll do our best to serve people in our adversarial system, where there are at least two sides to every case.”
George Hausen, executive director of Legal Aid of North Carolina, commended Holton and Duke Law School’s dean, David Levi, for their efforts in creating the clinic, calling it “path-breaking.”
Hausen said Duke students will work at the Legal Aid office and learn what’s involved in handling complex cases.
He gave an example of how his office can make a difference in the lives of people living in low-income housing.
Often, he said, children come to medical clinics with asthma caused by cockroach infestation in their homes. Doctors relay that information to the Legal Aid office, and lawyers present the landlord with two choices: Fix the problem or go to court.
That frequently results in the landlord ridding the complex of roaches, improving residents’ health.
“Having Duke involved with us will be a great resource,” Hausen said. “That will be an immense contribution to eliminating dangerous housing conditions that people often find themselves in. It’s a wonderful opportunity for us.”
FIND OUT MORE
For information, call Legal Aid’s Durham office, located at 201 W. Main St., at 919-688-6396.