Free legal advice offered to residents

CONYERS -- Free legal advice is available to anyone with legal questions, and even those without questions may want drop in to make sure they are accessing all the rights available to them under the law.

Walk-in sessions with an attorney are available from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Rockdale Emergency Relief and 2 to 5 p.m. at the Rockdale County Courthouse the first Tuesday of every month.

The free legal help, which applies only to civil matters, is a service of Georgia Legal Services Program. The Atlanta-based nonprofit organization was founded to provide legal assistance to low-income individuals.

Foreclosure and eviction assistance stood out as the subject drawing the most inquiries and requests for service, according to GLSP attorney Cole Thaler, who runs the sessions in Rockdale County.

"People come in with a very wide range of questions," Thaler said, mentioning those needing help accessing public benefits such as Medicaid and food stamps.

Thaler said he has noticed a recent shift in the type of assistance needed. He tied it directly to the economy.

"Unemployment benefits is a big one," Thaler said. "We're seeing many people getting fired or laid off, applying for unemployment and then the employer fights (the employee's) right to unemployment (benefits). So (employees) come looking to us looking for representation at the hearing."

Thaler pointed out that he also sees domestic violence survivors needing help with protective orders, along with people having problems with credit card companies and bill collectors "who are trying to collect debt in ways that violate the law."

Foot traffic during the three-hour courthouse session averages between six to eight people with the intake sessions typically lasting 20 to 40 minutes, according to Thaler.

The session can continue with follow-up sessions or sometimes just end with advice.

"But very often we do represent them in court," Thaler said.

Thaler encourages people to take advantage of the free resource, rather than resorting to attending court hearings alone or attempting self-representation.

Using a foreclosure situation between a renter and an owner as an example, Thaler said there are new laws and a lot of defenses that people may not be aware of. Consulting an attorney could help.

"People have rights. There are arguments to be made. And I think a lot of people give up ... or assume they're going to lose when that's not necessarily true," Thaler said.

Potential clients must go through eligibility screening in order to receive services from the Georgia Legal Services Program. For more information, call 404-894-7707 or visit www.glsp.org.

The Public Defender's offices in Rockdale and Newton counties also provide legal representation for the indigent population. However, the service is only for criminal cases.