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Free legal clinics deal with debt

People who find themselves mired in debt might not need a lawyer, just a little advice.

Street Legal Nanaimo now runs free legal advice clinics for people struggling with debt and consumer issues.

Clinics were started in early October by Clodagh O'Connell, Street Legal executive director.

O'Connell is a recent University of Victoria law graduate who recognized a need for the clinics when she worked at Access Pro Bono in Nanaimo through the summer.

The clinics, staffed by O'Connell and trained community advocates, are held Saturday mornings around a kitchen table and a pot of coffee, rather than across an office desk, to create a relaxed atmosphere.

"In a legal setting, I think it's pretty unique," O'Connell said. "When you have debt trouble you need legal advice, information and you also need support. It's professional advice, but the setting is informal and comfortable."

Street Legal Nanaimo – a non-profit organization founded last year by Nanaimo lawyer Denice Barrie – is the only group in the city offering free legal advice for debt issues.

The clinics do not deal with bankruptcies or foreclosures, but are designed to help people understand their options and rights when dealing with banks and collection agencies and negotiating debt repayment.

"Every situation is unique, but we can let them know what their options are and then if they want help moving forward, dealing with creditors, sending letters to creditors. We also refer them on to other places."

If clients need a lawyer, staff can refer them to the lawyer referral service or a pro bono legal clinic.

O'Connell said most people simply need information and direction and the majority of clients want to pay their debts and do not come to the clinics looking for ways to avoid repayment.

A high percentage of clients are seniors who have fallen behind on utilities payments or are struggling with high property taxes. Other people have fallen victim to job loss and other economic factors beyond their control, which led to a downward debt spiral.

"It's something that just happens in life," O'Connell said. "There shouldn't be any blame or judgement attached. Most people run into debt issues at some point in their lives."

To be eligible for clinics, people must be living on a low to moderate income.

The next debt clinic is scheduled for Saturday (Oct. 29), 10 a.m. at the Street Legal Nanaimo offices at 210 Milton St.

For more information, please visit the organization's website at www.streetlegalnanaimo.org.

Street Legal Nanaimo also offers training for people who want to work with the organization as clinic advocates who are supervised by legal staff. The training is free and new sessions start in January.

To learn more about becoming a clinic advocate, please contact O'Connell at info@streetlegalnanaimo.org.

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