FAIRMONT — The financial troubles West Virginians are facing amid the COVID-19 pandemic due to either job loss or illness keep attorney Richard Morris rather busy.
As an attorney with Legal Aid of West Virginia, Morris sees how finances impact families directly and he strives to present them with options they have to keep up and obtain funds, he said, they are entitled to.
“Since the pandemic, it has certainly brought to the forefront a lot of issues regarding benefits and taxes especially,” Morris said. “One of the areas that we’re expanding into, which I am trying to do my best to spearhead, is helping people better understand the tax benefits that they are entitled to.”
In 2019, Morris traveled to different schools in Marion County where he talked with children’s parents or guardians who were seeking legal help for issues they may be facing. It’s part of a program called Lawyer in the School that Legal Aid provides free of charge to help to those who qualify based on their annual income.
Morris said while he has always handled court cases and given legal advice to parents at Legal Aid, Lawyer in the School allows him to be more accessible and approachable providing the free service to people who qualify.
“This Lawyer in the School program, it’s really making an impact in the community,” Morris said. “There’s more work to be done and we know that because this pandemic has exacerbated so many of the legal problems that these families are now facing. We stand at the ready to help any way we can.”
In 2019, Morris began taking appointments at Monongah Elementary, which has a population of students whose parents and guardians qualify for Legal Aid. School Principal Kim Higgins said she got word out to parents that Morris was available for help, and eventually, some approached him for help with legal issues.
“At first it was kind of slow to start,” Higgins said. “But it did pick up. Word got around, we sent flyers home, parents would talk to me a little bit to get an idea of what he was there for. The parents who did come in to see him, they were very pleased.”
Morris said he has seen a lot of grandparents raising their grandchildren who are seeking full guardianship because of the situation they are in. While this can be a difficult and expensive issue to navigate, Morris said he is normally able to get grandparents through this hurdle, or at least point them in the right direction if he is unable to help.
Another issue that has come up locally is how a change in the driver’s license suspension law is impacting low-income workers who want to keep a job. He said he hopes to help more parents with this issue during the upcoming semester.
“The law concerning driver’s license suspensions has recently changed,” Morris said. “We’re working to get information to people who maybe don’t have a driver’s license because they have unpaid fines to see whether or not we can help them get their driver’s license reinstated.”
Because the pandemic is keeping many children home from school, Morris said the Lawyer in the School program will be operating remotely as well. Even despite the closing of many physical businesses and offices, the court system in Marion County has stayed open for the most part, so Morris can still work.
“Even with the pandemic going on, I’m still meeting with people,” Morris said. “Courts are still functioning, we’re still able to get a case filed, get a court date and finalize adoptions for people.”
Morris also said that when he is approached by someone at school he is unable to represent, he can still provide advice or a reference to someone else who can help, not wanting to turn anyone away completely.
“This program doesn’t cost people who qualify a thing,” Morris said. “Our team tries really hard to make sure that when somebody comes to us with a legal problem, they’re never turned away without anything.”
Higgins called Morris “a nice and easy to talk to attorney,” and encouraged anyone currently in need of legal advice to speak to him because he has almost always been able to help.
“People should take advantage of it,” Higgins said. “I had a couple teachers that came in and asked him questions, just some basic questions and he was able to help them. He answered their questions and led them in the right direction.”
Morris said the Lawyer in the School program has been good so far, and he has been able to represent and advise many people just from Monongah Elementary. He said that although he won’t be physically at schools any time soon, he is available to call at 866-255-4370, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org, for help.
“During this time we have seen more and more people have these kinds of questions,” Morris said. “Legal Aid of West Virginia has done such a phenomenal job in putting together this information and getting it out on our website to our community partners.”