You have the right to speak to an attorney…

By Ashley Bean Thornton

If, like me, you learned most of what you know about the law from watching TV, you may be familiar with the words, “You have the right to speak to an attorney… If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you at government expense.” It turns out that only applies in criminal cases, not civil. Did you know that? I didn’t. I’ve never had to think about it. Lack of access to competent legal counsel for civil issues is one strand of the tangled web that makes it difficult for people to escape poverty.

Imagine this situation: You are living in a run-down apartment and your faucet has been leaking for two weeks. The sound of the sometimes dripping, sometimes streaming, water is driving you crazy and the waste is costing you money. Your landlord keeps “not getting around to” fixing it. You decide, logically enough, not to pay your rent until he fixes the leak. Bad idea. It turns out the law is not on your side. If you don’t pay your rent, you can be evicted, even if your landlord is negligent about repairs. But, you don’t know that, so out you go.

You don’t have the money to pay the deposits on a new place, so now you and your kids are “couch surfing.”  While this is going on, your daily routines are shot to pieces, and you start showing up late to work and not in the best of moods…a few cross words with your boss later and you find yourself being written up, or worse yet, fired from your $8.50 an hour job. All this drama has your kids upset, so school is not going well…on and on it goes. A little timely, competent legal advice might have averted this particular crisis.

All of us are better off when more of us are avoiding these kinds of problems, but what can be done about it?

I had lunch Monday with Kent McKeever from Mission Waco Legal Services and Sheryl Swanton from Lone Star Legal Aid. They opened my eyes to this and many other situations in which people with little or no means get into jams with our system of civil laws. These kinds of situations are the impetus behind the “First Monday” legal clinics being offered by McKeever’s group. The clinics offer people with limited income the opportunity to ask the one or two questions that might make the difference between solving a problem and touching off a downward spiral that can have bad effects for months or years to come. Please help spread the word about these clinics; support them financially; volunteer your time to help if you are able; inform yourself about this issue, and most of all keep your mind and heart open to the folks who find themselves needing this service.

The web of challenges in which people with little income are often entangled is complicated and frustrating – legal jams are just one possible strand. If I were caught in such a web, I’m certainly not sure I would be able to extricate myself without a little help – could you?


 Mission Waco First Monday Legal Clinics – First Monday of each month. 5:30 pm – 8:00 pm, Mission Waco Meyer Center, 1226 Washington Ave., Waco, TX 76701 – Appointments are not required but are strongly recommended. For more information call 254-296-9866, ext. 214 or email [email protected]. The website is

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