FORT WORTH -- Deena Maxie struggled to keep her marriage together but realized that she wanted a divorce.
High legal costs kept her from filing.
Maxie was fortunate to be among the first clients to be chosen to receive pro bono, or free, legal help from a newly created organization, Tarrant Volunteer Attorney Services. On Tuesday, 19 people got help with filing divorce papers and spoke to attorneys about their legal situations at the Tarrant County Bar Center.
"My attorney was great. I felt he was compassionate," said Maxie, describing her experience in discussing her divorce.
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Maxie, 46, of Arlington, is on medical leave from her job. She described how she had tried to get legal help for the past four years, but the fees were too expensive.
"I talked to an attorney who wanted $3,000 with a thousand dollars to start," she said. "I couldn't afford that and make ends meet."
Karen Denney of the Haynes and Boone law firm, who helped organize the event, said that a committee made up of local attorneys, several judges and personnel from the office of Tarrant County District Clerk Tom Wilder, as well as the Tarrant County Bar Association, began meeting in April to discuss the need to provide and improve access to free legal services to the indigent.
The committee wants to improve pro bono legal services to the poor and to encourage more participation among attorneys, she said.
"We talked about past pro bono efforts and how we could improve relations between Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas and the Tarrant Bar Association," Denney said.
Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas provides free civil legal services to eligible low-income residents in 114 Texas counties, but often finds itself stretched to the limit on the number of clients it can serve.
In fact, 60 percent of those who qualify for legal aid in Tarrant County don't get the help they need because there isn't enough funding, said Shelby Jean, communications director for Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas.
For now, Tarrant County attorneys will focus on divorce cases, but Denney said other areas where clients routinely need assistance are in writing wills and helping to resolve tenant-landlord disputes.
The committee visited legal aid programs in San Antonio and Austin to get ideas for providing more and better services in Tarrant County.
Many people find it difficult to take time off work or from their children to meet with attorneys during the day, but they can often meet with attorneys in the evening.
Denney said another goal is to encourage more attorneys to do pro bono work. The committee found that many attorneys have specialties and don't feel comfortable with family law cases. Also, there are concerns about malpractice insurance.
But Denney added that mentors are available to answer family law questions, and if an attorney takes a case through legal aid, malpractice insurance is offered.
Wilder said he is also aware of the need for more pro bono services in Tarrant County. He and his staff from the district clerk's office were on hand to help file paperwork.
Wilder said 30,000 family law cases are filed each year, and in 60 percent of those cases, one party tries to represent him or herself, he said. The pro bono program will help move cases in a cost-efficient manner, he said.Mike Sheehan, chairman of the Tarrant County Bar Foundation, said several attorneys were turned away because more than enough volunteers were on hand. They included attorneys just starting out and those who have been practicing law for 40 years, Sheehan said.
More than 70 volunteers were available, including 28 attorneys, employees from the district clerk's office and mentors.
"It's nice for the community to know that we have lawyers willing to lend a hand," he said.
Kimberly Dewey, a child welfare attorney, said Tuesday's event was her first time to handle a pro bono case. "I am very new to pro bono work, and I thought it would be interesting to have that experience," she said.
Meanwhile, Maxie said she was grateful for the help she received and that filing for divorce will help her get on with her life.
"I am very pleased," she said. "I felt like my attorney really tried to get to know me."