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Assisting with disaster relief and tenants rights are among the priorities for South Carolina Legal Services. File/Leroy Burnell/Staff

For those who are already struggling to get by, paying for professional legal services can be difficult, especially when navigating evictions, hurricane damage and domestic violence cases. 

South Carolina Legal Services is a free legal aid organization based in nine locations across the state that brings these services to the Palmetto State's poor. 

As SCLS celebrated its 50th anniversary Feb. 15, North Charleston's nine SCLC attorneys juggled between 40 and 50 cases each. Domestic violence attorney Rita Roach was handling about 80. 

In North Charleston, lawyers place special emphasis on tenants' rights, violent divorce battles and migrant farm workers' rights, said manager Angela Myers. 

"The lawyer's work is never done," Myers said. 

SCLS receives funding through the federal government.

Myers manages the SCLC offices in North Charleston and in Conway. About 40 percent of SCLS cases are family law, she said. The organization takes on divorce and custody cases when there is physical cruelty present. 

Roach has been practicing law for nearly two decades and began working for SCLS in North Charleston 10 years ago. Her clients are victims of domestic violence. The majority of her cases involve families with children, she said.

While many of her adult clients are women, that is not always the case. Roach once helped a man in his late-80s who was being abused by his wife. 

In South Carolina, where the standard of violence is high, low-income people have an even harder time going through the legal steps to get divorced, Roach said. Even though divorce law is notoriously difficult to argue in the state of South Carolina, she said she wouldn't do anything else. 

"It is a way in which I can see myself making a real difference for someone," she said. 

Roach recalled a harrowing case in which a mother fought for nearly five years to regain custody of her children from foster parents. The mother had lost the children after the father was accused of abuse.

"If not for Legal Services, she never would have gotten her kids back," Myers said. 

The remaining 60 percent of SCLS cases are scattered across various kinds of civil law, from financial and consumer protection to landlord-tenant and housing discrimination law.

In the wake of heavy rains and hurricanes, SCLS has served many flood victims who did not have insurance, were displaced from their homes or were without food. SCLS also helps veterans and those serving in the military, fighting for clients' benefits, education and employment opportunities. 

A legal issue that has been growing in necessity is protecting the rights of migrant farm workers. These workers, mostly from Mexico, are in South Carolina legally through the federal government's temporary employment program. The law states that growers must contract with farmers and pay all costs of obtaining the job — visas, housing and transportation to and from their homes. 

Farmers and growers do not always follow through on this promise.

In South Carolina, crops including tomatoes, peaches, berries and cotton are harvested mostly by these Latino workers, said Karla Martinez, an SCLS attorney. 

Martinez leads the SCLS migrant unit, which is based in North Charleston, but her work takes her all over the state.

A native Spanish speaker, Martinez goes into the labor camps across the state armed with SCLS brochures and cards that outline migrant workers' rights in Spanish. 

The first legal aid program started in 1876 in New York City and was known as the German Immigrants' Society. It served low-income residents with legal needs. Local governments, law schools and private companies began replicating the program elsewhere, and by 1965, more than 140 legal aid groups existed in the United States.

In counties throughout South Carolina, lawyers, judges and court administrations founded legal aid organizations. After 1967, there were organizations in the Midlands, Lowcountry and in the Upstate. What is the present-day SCLS was founded in 1968.

Congress passed the Legal Services Corporation Act in 1974, creating a federal provision of civil legal services. In the 1990s, the Legal Services Corporation oversaw the mergers of regional programs and in 2002, the South Carolina Legal Services was established in its current capacity. 

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Reach Hannah Alani at 843-937-5428. Follow her on Twitter @HannahAlani.

Hannah Alani is a reporter at The Post and Courier covering race, immigration and rural life across the Palmetto State. Before graduating from Indiana University and moving to Charleston in 2017, her byline appeared in The New York Times.

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