Inside the Center of Arkansas Legal Services

November 12-18, 2018

By Becca Bona


Balancing the scales of justice is no easy feat, especially when one considers the tangled webs caused by the simplest of issues. The Center for Arkansas Legal Services’ (CALS) main mission is to do just that, all the while keeping an eye toward the big picture.


CALS Executive Director Jean Carter says, “We ask ourselves, ‘How does a legal intervention help an individual in their everyday life with their everyday problems? What kind of barriers out there exist that are affecting things like employment, housing, children’s education, and disability benefits?’”


At the end of the day, Carter says, the goal is not only to help individuals who need legal intervention, but also to create a more stable community at-large.  


Looking back at legal aid in Central Arkansas


Nonprofits focused on legal aid Central Arkansas got their start a little over 50 years ago. Before that, of course, pro bono work was alive and well in the area.


“But, in terms of a nonprofit specifically dedicated to working with low income Arkansans and trying to spread that coverage across the entire state,” Carter explains, “That goes back to 1965.”


One of the first nonprofits, the Legal Aid Bureau of Pulaski County, was supported and formed by members and officers of the Pulaski County Bar Association (PCBA). Carter points to familiar names like Bill Clark of Friday, Eldredge, and Clark and Isaac “Ike” Scott of Wright Lindsey Jennings – among others.  


As many nonprofits focused on legal/civil aid began to form, there was a need for consolidation. In 2001, seven different nonprofits came together to form CALS.


Shortly thereafter, the team at CALS realized they were in a position to observe issues surrounding civil and legal aid that needed more attention than the center could provide.


“We really didn’t have an independent organization, state committee, or commission that supported the need for access to justice,” Carter remembers. The to-do list for an access to justice committee was beyond the scope of CALS, but necessary.


Thus, the Arkansas Bar Association along with CALS helped petition the Supreme Court for a formation of the Arkansas Access to Justice Committee, which was formed in 2003.


“In the formative years between the actual founding of the commission in 2003 when the Supreme Court adopted it and up to 2009, our program here in Little Rock helped support the formation of the commission and provided some amount of staffing for it until it got to a point where then it could be totally self sustaining and supported by the court,” Carter says.


Today, CALS, which is headquartered in Little Rock, serves 44 of the 75 counties in the state. CALS also has a Jonesboro office (Legal Aid of Arkansas), and works to help as many individuals as possible.  


“The bread and butter issues that we continue to see include domestic violence victims, people with family law problems, housing, eviction, access to medicaid benefits,” Carter explains.


For instance, consider a mother with a drug problem. If she winds up going to jail, her children are now in the care of her mother – the children’s grandmother. There is a potential for issues to arise, as Carter says, “If they aren’t able to get that legal access to obtain a guardianship for the child – then now that child has problems regarding the schools, and getting enrolled. Also, how do you make sure this child has healthcare and benefits?” Once that is taken away, you’re looking at instability not only in that family but in the community if the state has to step in.


“That simple legal intervention may not be a super complicated legal problem, but it may be super complicating in a person’s life or a family’s life if that legal need goes unmet,” Carter explains, “When those kinds of things happen it really creates instability into our community.”


Carter first got involved with legal aid when she graduated law school. She has been involved with CALS (and a precursor to CALS) since 1996, and she knows a thing or two about the importance of fundraising, as she says, “It’s necessary to pay salaries and keep the lights on.”


In fact, she wouldn’t be happier anywhere else – “We can’t help everybody but we are able to help a lot of people and make a real difference […] we think about what our mission statement is, who we need to serve, and what the most critical needs for the community are.”


Volunteering with CALS


Over 35 years ago, the Pulaski County Bar Association (PCBA) created an organized pro bono panel with a fundraising arm. Now known as VOCALS (Volunteer Organization of Center for Arkansas Legal Services), it’s perhaps the longest ongoing project of the PCBA – outside of law week.


Carter references Phil Carroll of the Rose Law Firm and Jane Dickey of the Rose Law firm – among others – as being integral to getting VOCALS off the ground.


“It had and still has good and widespread support with our county bar and the state bar association, local law firms – big firms, small firms, and solo practitioners. It’s something that we’re very proud of.”


Carter is always trying to keep attorneys engaged with VOCALS, as well as introduce new attorneys to the program. Even so, CALS has worked to make volunteering easier on participating attorneys, and ten years ago landed on clinics.


Carter calls them “limited scope opportunities” – and their goal is to give an attorney an opportunity to spend a few hours doing a targeted task for a specific group in need.


“We have various clinics that we’re doing for veterans,” Carter explains, “We do these expungement or record sealing clinics. We also do clinics for senior citizens to help them with wills, power of attorney, healthcare proxy – those kinds of things.”


Attorneys will spend time drafting documents or even interviewing clients throughout their time slot.  


Plus, CALS also tries to provide a learning arm with the clinic, as well.


“We usually put these together with Continuing Legal Education (CLE),” Carter says, “We’ve got a lot of staff support and we’re able to help a lot of people and give attorneys an opportunity to volunteer and do something meaningful, as well as expand their practice.”


Over the past five years, she thinks CALS has gotten the clinics down to an art.


“This is one of those things that we hope helps both ways to engage some attorneys who might want veteran’s benefits claims to be part of their law practice and be able to get them accredited with the VA which is a requirement so that not only can we refer them to clients that through our monthly clinic, but if they are contacted by veteran’s in their own practice that they’ll be able to use it.”


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When it comes to legal aid in central Arkansas, the Center for Arkansas Legal Services is the area’s go-to.  While balancing justice is no easy feat, the center is extremely methodical.  Executive Director Jean Carter says, “We think about what our mission statement is and who we need to serve and what the most critical needs for the community are.”