A pro bono
success story

by Donnie Finegold

Volunteer paralegals can make a major contribution to the resolution of legal problems of the increasing population of low-income elderly. Their pro bono service saves the time of legal service staff attorneys for more complex cases and litigation at a time when budgets are being severely cut. Futhermore, paralegals are well-qualified for elderly-law advocacy work. They have expertise in interviewing clients, are familiar with legal documents, and are persistent in researching answers to legal problems. As a result, elderly clients have great confidence in paralegal volunteers because of their specialized background and experience. For paralegals, participation in a pro bono elder law program provides an opportunity for valuable hands-on experience, thus expanding their professional capabilities.

In 1994, 25 trained paralegals participated in the Paralegal Advocacy Volunteers for the Elderly (PAVE) project, administered by Legal Services of Northern Virginia (LSNV) with the support of Legal Counsel for the Elderly of AARP. Under this program, paralegals helped 175 low-income elderly residents of Northern Virginia-clients who might otherwise have long waited for Legal Services staff assistance or received no help at all.

The first project of its kind, PAVE used trained paralegals as advocates for low-income elderly in Northern Virginia in four problem areas: Public Benefits, Consumer Problems, Medical Bill/Medical Insurance concerns, and Advance Directives such as the Living Will, and Medical and general Durable Powers of Attorney.

The PAVE Model could easily be replicated in other areas of the country. Creation of a similar program requires an energetic and dedicated local paralegal group, a pro bono advocate within the legal service agency, and the support of local Bar association pro bono Committees.

Here are some of the cases PAVE volunteers handled on their own last year

In addition to the resolution of their specific problems, all 175 clients received a public benefits check-up to make sure they were receiving all the benefits to which they were entitled. Thus, a paralegal volunteer may handle several issues for one client if the client is eligible for additional benefits.

PAVE volunteers staff a free Legal Aid Phone Hot Line Service that operates the first and third Saturdays of the month between 10:00 a.m. and 12:00 noon in the LSNV Falls Church office. Clients receive assistance over the phone or come in for personal interviews scheduled beforehand. The PAVE office number is the Hot Line number, so clients' calls can be handled during business hours.

An LSNV staff attorney or senior elder law paralegal is always present during the Saturday PAVE session to assist volunteers with complex cases and advise them on a course of action. The volunteer paralegal is the prime caseworker. While he may contact the PAVE office coordinator and supervising attorney for help, the volunteer is totally responsible for bringing the case to a conclusion.

To be eligible for PAVE service, Northern Virginia residents must be 60 years of age or older; have a monthly income of no more than $1,200/individual or $1,800/couple; with assets not exceeding $15,000 (excluding the value of one's home). Elderly residents learn about the PAVE Program through a flyer distributed to all senior housing and recreational centers in Northern Virginia. Follow-up calls are then made to these institutions prior to the PAVE Saturday Hot Line dates. In addition, press releases are sent out regularly to area newspapers and senior adult newsletters.

For more information on the PAVE experience in setting up an advocacy service for low income elderly and the recruitment and training of volunteers, write to Donnie Finegold, PAVE Coordinator, Legal Services of Northern Virginia, 6400 Arlington Blvd., Ste. 630, Falls Church, VA 22042, or call (703) 532-3927.

Donnie Fiengold is the PAVE Coordinator for Legal Services of Northern Virginia.



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