When Wendy Hamilton’s epilepsy kept her out of work, she hoped a disability check from the government would help keep her afloat.
But Hamilton, 46, of North Charleston, already had applied for the assistance and had been denied more than 20 years earlier, she said. For years, she asked for a fair hearing to make her case, but was told she needed to reapply, she said.
“When I got my first hearing they threw me out of the courtroom and said not to come back until I had a lawyer,” she said.
Hamilton had been to several lawyers, and none of them could help her until 2011, when she met with Charleston County Pro Bono Legal Services, she said.
“They were the only ones to help me get my disability.”
Despite financial challenges, the nonprofit group has continued to assist the underprivileged for the last nine years, and is working to continue growing. The service recently hired a new in-house attorney, the first in eight years, according to its director, Marvin Feingold.
Around since 2004, the group has handled more than 4,000 cases in the last six years, according to Lad Howell, Charleston County Bar Association’s president.
Last year the bar association pledged a permanent annual donation from a portion of its attorney’s membership dues. “We strive to increase the public’s awareness of these services and expand the services themselves,” Howell said.
The nonprofit group counsels clients dealing with cases of Social Security, family court, landlord-tenant issues and handling estates and probate cases.
“With the increase of the poverty rate locally there has been certainly an increase demand for our services,” Feingold said.
The service has had about 400 volunteer private attorneys who have handled cases at some point. But they need even more assistance, according to Feingold.
“There are many more civil cases than there are legal volunteers,” he said.
Feingold, 69, has dedicated his career to legal aid in four states. “It was who I was. I enjoyed it,” he said when describing his path to pro bono work.
Feingold said he sees the same compassion among today’s young lawyers, but they face new problems, which may keep some of them focused on their financial priorities.
“Young people, by their nature, are more idealistic and sometimes more compassionate as a result, but I think one of the problems we have today that we didn’t have back then was that law school is so expensive. So most of these kids come out of there with a lot of debt,” he said.
The service is making it easier for lawyers, young and old, to help. Its website now offers a database of available cases for attorneys to browse, Feingold said.
“Our priority now is to get them engaged in using it,” he said.
The involvement of Charleston’s private attorneys is essential in helping as many people as they do, Feingold said.
Now that she can pay her doctor’s bills, Hamilton appreciates the agency’s assistance. “If it wasn’t for the pro bono services I wouldn’t have my disability because I would still be fighting for it.”
Reach Natalie Caula at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.