Thursday, September 20, 2007

Legal Aid for All Micronesians

The numbers of those leaving the CNMI due to the economic downfall is growing. Their absence is palpable. Many are leaving their family, making the hard decision to sacrifice pride of home and culture. This reluctant portion of the exodus is headed primarily to the US, in search of better days.

I can imagine the same for those leaving Palau, Chuuk, Kosrae, the Marshall Islands, Phonpei or Yap. I do not know how they are faring overseas, but at least I know that they will not be denied legal aid for merely being Micronesian. If they are in financial straits and are facing legal problems, they may be able to obtain the services of an attorney for free, whether it be for debt relief, child support, consumer protection, fair housing, prevention of domestic violence or a host of other civil matters.

But this only happened last week.

On September 14, 2007, a decade-long restriction on free civil legal services to indigent Micronesians residing in the US was lifted. Legal Services Corporation (LSC), a quasi-federal agency serving as the main source of funding for nonprofit legal aid organizations, amended its regulations on alien representation for citizens from the Freely Associated States (FAS) of Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia. Before the change, FAS citizens could only be eligible for legal aid in the West Pacific (through Micronesian Legal Services). In the US, however, FAS citizens were deemed ineligible aliens unless they fell under one of the general exempt categories of documented aliens. This barrier to legal aid cannot be simply written off as the fallout of the relationship between the US and the former Trust Territories. A brief political history is in order.

In the 1960s, legal aid programs began flourishing in the US through funding by the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), the agency administering the social agenda of Pres. Johnson’s War on Poverty. Micronesian Legal Services began in 1971 through the efforts of individuals such as former CNMI Senator Herman R. Guerrero and Marshall Islands Senator Tony de Brum with the assistance of the OEO.

As with many Great Society programs, legal aid has always had its share of detractors. In 1983, the US Congress barred representation of aliens as a condition for LSC funding. This was done in the midst of the Reagan administration’s push to curtail if not abolish legal aid. Certain types of documented aliens were not subject to the restriction, such as permanent residents, refugees and political asylees. Also exempt from the restriction were citizens of the US Trust Territories of the Pacific Islands (what is now the FAS and the CNMI). The exemption carried on after the termination of Trust Territory status in 1986, insofar as the Compact of Free Association Act governing the relationship between the US and the FAS extended LSC-funded services to all FAS citizens.

Legal aid to FAS citizens in the US ended in 1996. Along with a massive budget cut, wide-ranging restrictions were imposed on LSC under the Republican-controlled Congress during Pres. Clinton’s administration. One of the changes involved a reinterpretation of the Compact of Free Association. Legal aid could only be available to FAS citizens within the confines of their home countries. Micronesians abroad were demoted.

The impact was deeply felt. At the time the Compact was signed, there were most likely less than 10,000 Micronesians in the US, mostly in Hawaii and Guam. Today, there are over 40,000 FAS citizens residing in the US, with over 15,000 living in Hawaii and up to 10,000 Marshallese living in Northeast Arkansas alone. Legal aid organizations in those states, along with organizations representing Micronesians and others within the legal community, pushed for a removal of the legal aid embargo. US Senate legislation was passed in September 2006 clarifying that the bar on alien representation was not intended to apply to FAS citizens. David Cohen, head of the Office of Insular Affairs, US Dept. of the Interior, verified that the Compact and federal law and policy allow FAS citizens in the US to receive LSC-funded legal aid.

Without a sense of history, what was done last week might be seen as a mere correction. For those who supported the change, they see it as the strengthening of the rule of law by ensuring equal access to justice.

These are heady times in the CNMI. A sea change is in the works, given the imminent federal overhaul of local immigration law, the casino industry initiative in Saipan, and the local labor reform bill. Many cannot remain steadfast as the tourist and garment industries collapse; they are leaving for the States. For those choosing to remain here, perhaps what happened last week will help them bear in mind that the looming sea change in the CNMI should not compromise the ability of anyone, wherever they live, from being able to exercise their rights.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

3. Debt Collection

We see a lot of people who owe money that they can't afford to pay back. Most times, they don't dispute the debt. They owe the money. The sad fact is, however, they have no money with which to repay the debt. (And by "debt," I mean money owed for goods and services, NOT child support or spousal support.)

We've seen some pretty bad abuses of the debt collection system in the CNMI, too. There is a very strong sentiment that people who owe money MUST pay it back. I have seen the moral and legal obligation to repay money considered more important than supporting children, than buying food, than providing for utilities for one's self, than having transportation, than health needs, than any of the basics of life. And I've seen that attitude from not only collection attorneys and their clients, but from judges.

People who are too poor to pay have been "ordered" to pay anyway, and those orders are under threat of contempt, which can result in jail time. I know of dozens of cases where poor people here in the CNMI were put in jail for not paying their debts, and put in jail without being given an attorney first to help protect their liberty.

MLSC has been relentlessly trying to help poor clients be educated about their rights. We have tried to push the court to follow the law through our representation of indigents in consumer cases. We've had limited success.

So here are a few reminders. This is not an exhaustive list, but it may help people understand the debt collection process, and how it is supposed to work, a little better.

1. When you owe a debt, you can be taken to court for a judgment to be entered against you, and for the court to consider your ability to pay it.

2. When a collection agency like "Reliable Collection" contacts you, you have a right to certain notices. If they call, tell them to stop calling, and keep track of every call, what they say, and what you say. If they write, keep the letters you get. If they threaten you with court action, say "that's a good idea." Because RCA adds on more charges than you typically pay in court. If you are a debtor, collection agencies are not your friends. Don't trust them.

3. DO NOT BE AFRAID OF COURT. You have a chance to have your rights protected in court. If you get papers to go to court, be sure to show up, or you can be arrested.

4. It's a good idea to get legal advice before you go to court. If you are poor, come to Micronesian Legal Services with your court papers (and your collection letters or notes about collection agency contacts).

5. No matter how much you owe, there are some kinds of income that can never be taken from you in payment of the judgment: food stamps, SSI, Social Security benefits, VA benefits, NMI Retirement benefits and income from other similar programs.

6. You also get to protect a certain amount of your income that is necessary for your daily needs.(The federal rule sets this equal to 30 times the federal minimum wage per week). The CNMI law, along with certain federal laws, are designed to keep poor people from going over the edge-mentally, financially. The laws want to help you avoid bankruptcy. The laws want you to be honest, repay your debts within your ability, and support yourself and your family at least to a basic level.

7. But if you are in serious debt and you have some income or asset to protect from the reach of creditors, then you might want to consider bankruptcy relief. This may discharge all of your debts completely, or set up a payment plan for 3 to 5 years and discharge whatever is beyond the plan. Bankruptcy is helpful, but you can only file once every 7 years, and it has a negative effect on your credit rating.

8. If you're thinking about bankruptcy, get a lawyer. There are new rules. You must have credit counseling before you file. And you must meet other requirements that are somewhat tricky.

9. If you have bench warrants out for your arrest, get a lawyer. You don't need to keep hiding. You can do something to get things straightened out and stop worrying.

10. But the best way to avoid running into debt collection problems is to avoid unrealistic debt. Stay away from Friendly Finance, Wells Fargo and Isla Financial Services. These businesses say credit is easy-but it's not. It comes at a very high price and is extremely hard to repay, for anyone. Don't use credit for birthdays, weddings, funerals, baptisms, holy communion or confirmation parties, or anything else like that. Credit is best used for big purchases that you really need and most people aren't going to have enough money for, like houses and cars. Use cash for everything else, and if you don't have cash--don't spend, as hard as it is.

I really admire a lot of my clients who live in poverty. They are strong. They survive without power, telephones, and transportation. Their lives are difficult. But they do what they can and keep trying.

If you're facing tough economic times, please, don't make your life more difficult with bad credit choices.

Good luck.