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Local attorneys give free advice in observance of Law Day

By Robin Y. Richardson
May 1, 2012 at 1:46 a.m.

"No Courts, No Justice, No Freedom," is the theme for this year's Law Day, celebrated nationwide today.

And in observance of Law Day, several Harrison County bar members presented an "Ask a Lawyer" program this past Saturday in the community room of Marshall Fire Department, offering free consultations for anyone in need of legal advice.

"The attorneys that came were great; they answered a lot of questions," said Ned Dennis, organizer of the event.

"We covered a wide range of topics," added Dennis, noting topics included everything from contractual disputes to divorce, child support, custody, real estate issues, probates and wills - to name a few.

The nearly four-hour event drew a crowd of more than 20 people. And for those who weren't able to visit the attorneys in person, Verizon wireless provided two telephones for the general public to call in with questions.

"Most were appreciative of the advice they were given and what they learned," said Dennis, noting six stations were set up for attorneys to counsel attendees.

"We had a good response," he said, sharing how someone he advised repeatedly thanked him for the help she received.

Dennis said such a service is needed to help the public.

"So many people are trying to represent themselves, primarily in divorces," he said. "I've rarely seen a pro se litigant that's done decrees correctly."

He said when you start delving into family law matters such as child custody issues, child support and dividing assets, most pro se divorce litigants don't have a clue of what to do.

"Most don't know what a joint managing conservatorship is," he said regarding child custody cases.

And as laws change, many people are unaware of their rights. For instance, Dennis said as a result of a law, Senate Bill 785, passed by the Texas Legislature in 2011, any man who has been legally declared to be the father of a child, without paternity testing, now has until Sept. 1, 2012, to challenge the paternity in court and seek a termination of the parental relationship and the duty to pay child support if he has doubts or thinks he may be a victim of paternity fraud - regardless of the child's age.

And according to the legislation, also known as the "mistaken paternity bill", if genetic testing shows the man is not the child's father, the court shall terminate the parent-child relationship and child support obligation, except any back pay.

"This is an opportunity to challenge paternity if you have not challenged paternity in the past," said Dennis.

Dennis said they hope to provide some type of public service such as this again to provide free information regarding legal needs.

"There were several lawyers who indicated an interest and desire to do something like this other than (for) Law Day," said Dennis, noting one attorney suggested offering free consultations for senior citizens about having a power of attorney.

"We hope to provide as much service as we can. It's a needed service," Dennis said of free consultations.

"We need more lawyers to be willing to do more pro bono work because there is just a volume of questions" people need answers to, he said. "People don't feel comfortable going to a lawyer or can't afford to pay a lawyer."

Dennis said the Spanish speaking citizens attending the "Ask a Lawyer" program were especially grateful to have volunteer interpreters on hand.

"There is a fear they have when they seek any type of legal assistance," he said, sharing some are usually worried if their illegal status will hinder them from receiving services. They assured them it wouldn't.

"It was reassuring to them to have our volunteers there to speak their language," said Dennis. "The ladies we had were very competent. It made them feel more comfortable."

The eight participating attorneys at the event included Ned Dennis, Jim Ammerman, Tim Lester, Shelia McCoy, Bonnie Leggatt Hagan, Rick Hagan, Val Jones and Michael Bernoudy. The two volunteer interpreters were Sheana Sanchez and Desiree Lopez, a bilingual school teacher.



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