The organization was originally established in 1972 for the purpose of providing civil legal assistance to low-income and elderly residents of Jackson County. Before 1972 and the formal establishment of Jackson County Legal Services, the forerunner of the Center for Non-Profit Legal Services, Inc. (CNPLS), individual private attorneys volunteered their services to help Jackson County’s low-income residents. This volunteer effort became more formalized in 1966 when a Legal Aid Committee was established under the Jackson County Bar Association. Some 30 volunteer attorneys including Michael Brian, William Mansfield, Stuart Foster, William Deatherage, William Purdy, and others interviewed applicants on a first-come, first-served basis at the Jackson County Courthouse.
From 1970 through 1972, legal aid in Jackson County was a VISTA project, and through that structure a more focused approach for legal aid was possible. Milton Nelson was the original Director of Jackson County VISTA projects. The Bar Association was instrumental in creating and funding this non-profit legal aid organization.
To fulfill its mission CNPLS provides high quality legal representation to elderly and low-income residents of Jackson County. Clients include individuals or families living at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty level and/or are over 60, who struggle with problems stemming from poor health care, inadequate education, a lack of food, a scarcity of jobs, domestic violence, and other life-and death survival issues. Our goal is not to “win” cases, but to bring legal structure to social problems.
The only service of its kind in the county, CNPLS has resolved over 36,000 cases since its incorporation in 1972. From its beginnings, the success has been made possible through dedicated staff members, the private bar, local and state government, cooperating community agencies and our poor clients whose courage and convictions helped reach solutions that better their lives and those of their children.
The majority of cases resolved by CNPLS are in response to the pressing daily legal needs of individuals. However, in addition to meeting individual needs on a case-by-case basis, we also work to change unjust laws to benefit low-income people as a group to prevent future legal crisis for those who live in poverty. We have had a direct impact statewide and nationally with our work. Significant legal issues and community practices have been identified resulting in landmark decisions.
There is a significant need for targeted services to those groups who often encounter unique legal issues, or face special barriers to the legal system. These groups include the elderly, the disabled, farm workers, immigrants, the non-English speaking and youth. The legal problems of the poor sometimes are more complex, requiring a high level of legal expertise.
The State of Access to Justice in Oregon, Part I: Assessment of Legal Needs Study, March 31, 2000 highlighted the urgent need to increase access to legal services. “The need is highest in the area of family law, particularly in child custody and domestic violence cases. This is followed closely by housing advocacy, public services, employment law, consumer cases, immigration, farm worker advocacy and elder abuse.” The Oregon State Bar, the Oregon Judicial Department and the Office of Governor Kitzhaber, M.D sponsored the study.
This report was a call to action to strengthen legal services programs in Oregon. To this end, these trends of declining capacity must be reversed. CNPLS provides a vital safety net for our most vulnerable citizens. The fund development and public awareness campaign will reposition CNPLS toward becoming a self-sufficient agency with capacity to help our community.