Like a lot of immigrants, what brought Nigerian-born Emeka Onyekwelu to this country was the promise of a better life — for himself, for his wife, and especially for his five children. He calls America the greatest country in the world, and it's easy to see why. His older children are in college or recently graduated, heading for careers in engineering and medicine. The younger ones will soon follow.
Onyekwelu is not a rich man, but he's proud. It's hard, therefore, to listen to him talk about one of the harsher realities of life in this country: that the amount of money you can afford to pay a lawyer is often proportionate to the amount of justice you receive in court.
In December 2011, Onyekwelu and his family signed a lease on a home in North Little Rock, agreeing to pay just under $1,200 a month. Onyekwelu said it was immediately clear there were problems with the house. "We moved in, then the mold started coming through," he said. "We called them and they said, 'You need to clean it.' We said: 'How about the roof? The house is leaking. The windows are leaking. The bathroom is not working. When you flush the toilet upstairs or take a shower, it comes through the ceiling. The ceiling caved in'. ... That year was one of the coldest [winters] in years, and we had no heat. I told them that even in Africa, people don't punish people like that. This is the greatest country in the world, and you want my children to freeze?" Later, Onyekwelu said, they learned from neighbors that the house had been abandoned for several years prior to their moving in.
The family lived there until February 2013 before moving out. In spite of the problems they experienced, Onyekwelu said he paid his rent on time and has canceled checks to prove it. It was a surprise then, when he was served with a lawsuit filed by his former landlords in April of this year, seeking over $6,000 in back rent, plus attorney's fees and court costs.
"I couldn't afford to hire a lawyer and pay the attorney to go to court," he said. "I almost gave up and agreed to pay them whatever they were saying, even though I know I have all the evidence showing that I paid them."
Desperate, Onyekwelu eventually went to the law library at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's William H. Bowen School of Law, attempting to learn enough of the law to file a reply. Someone there suggested he go to the Legal Clinic just down the hall.
The Legal Clinic, which is a student-staffed law firm inside the law school, has been in operation for over 30 years, providing pro bono legal help and representation to clients who can't afford an attorney. Low-income clients get legal help, while students get invaluable experience representing real clients in court.
The clinic consists of four divisions, each with a different focus: the Consumer Protection Clinic, which deals with issues like housing disputes, fraud, credit access, evictions and foreclosures; the Litigation Clinic, which represents clients in family law disputes, including visitation and custody issues, divorce and guardianship cases; the Tax Clinic, which provides outreach, education on tax issues and representation for people involved in state and federal tax cases; and the Mediation Clinic, which provides impartial mediation, often in cases involving allegations of juvenile delinquency, child abuse, small claims disputes and minor-child visitation issues. Students who work on cases are supervised by an attorney licensed to practice law in the state.
"I told them my story," Onyekwelu said. "They said they were going to look at it and see if they still have a slot. Before I knew it, it was the miracle of the year for me. I got the help that I couldn't have gotten. They made two students in charge of the case. They followed the case and were doing everything even professional lawyers wouldn't have done. I asked them: 'How much should I pay?' and they said, 'Nothing.' I said: 'Why nothing?' They said: 'We help people who can't afford to pay for a lawyer, and you qualify.' "
With the help and representation of law students Andrew Branch and Patrick Melikian, supervised by Consumer Protection Clinic director Amy Pritchard, Onyekwelu was able to have the case against him dismissed in October. Onyekwelu calls his decision to seek help from the clinic one of the best he's ever made. If he'd never found the clinic, he said, he likely would have been forced to pay whatever had been demanded of him. He said his situation is representative of many low-income people who lose in court every day — not because they're wrong, but because they don't know how to go about proving they're right, and can't afford an attorney to help.
"They did it better than people who were paid," he said. "If I make money any day, no matter how, this is the kind of place that I would want to contribute my money. Other people who are being humiliated need such a service. I am so grateful for what they have done. God knows that what I'm saying is from my heart of hearts."
The Legal Clinic at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's William H. Bowen School of Law has been around over 30 years, said Kelly Browe Olson, an associate law professor and the director of clinical programs there. Even before the school was associated with the University of Arkansas system, Olson said, there had been a long tradition of training law students to work with clients. Hands-on experience with real clients is a vital part of learning to be a lawyer, she said.
"My example I always use is: Can you imagine a medical doctor who said: 'I've never touched a patient, but I've read a lot of books'?" she said. "A lot of lawyers used to graduate from law schools and had never met a client. They would be trained at firms, or by their father, or by someone they interned for. ... That's really changed and evolved. Now every school in the country has clinics."
The clinic at Bowen is funded through a mixture of sources. The salaries of the professors and directors are paid out of law school funding, but the clinic is also funded by grants. Currently, the program receives funding from the Administrative Office of the Courts, the Arkansas Alternative Dispute Resolution Commission and the Arkansas Department of Education. The low-income Tax Clinic is funded through the IRS, while the Consumer Protection Clinic is completely paid for by money set aside by Attorney General Dustin McDaniel following the settlement of a lawsuit the AG's office filed against mortgage providers over fraudulent home mortgages. Olson said that most of the clients served by the clinic are low-income, though a potential client's income is considered on a case-by-case basis.
In addition to real-world training, Olson said, law students who work at the clinic are also getting a different kind of education: just how many people there are out there who can't afford legal help, and the impact that can have on peoples' lives.
"People just don't have access to legal services," she said. "They just have to be turned away, even by the providers who are out there to do it. What we're trying to do is two-fold. One, we're training law students. But also, we're trying to make them aware of the great need out there for people to get legal help. It's not a balanced playing field."