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Free legal advice services coming to Cape Coral Aug. 1

By Staff | Jul 25, 2019

A partnership that began last year between the Lee County Clerk and the Lee County Legal Aid Society will expand into Cape Coral starting Aug. 1, providing citizens with free legal advice.

Lee County Legal Aid Society, Inc. Executive Director Andrew Banyai, Esq. said they are a legal aid agency that began as a homegrown effort by a group of lawyers 52 years ago. They have been representing low-income individuals in Lee County with the focal point currently being representation on child-related issues.

In February 2018, Banyai and Legal Director Blair DeMinico Esq., took over the leadership of the society. A staff attorney was added and expansion of services offered began.

One of those services began when a partnership with Lee County Clerk Linda Doggett was created to offer a court house clinic.

Lee County Clerk Linda Doggett said Banyai is a godsend.

“He is such a great, hardworking, innovative, generous person. He is going all out with this whole initiative. He is amazing,” she said.

The free legal advice is not only for people with matters involving children, but for those who need advice on what to say, what to write and how to argue their case when representing themselves in court.

“That does help them navigate the system considerably,” Banyai said. “People tend to be more prepared.”

He said if the litigant does not know what to say they may walk away with nothing because they did not know how to proceed in a courtroom.

Doggett said they started with a Clerk’s Self-Help Center in the Justice Center in Downtown Fort Myers before the partnership began with the Lee County Legal Aid Society.

“We were diverting people in our lobby into that space where we had computers and forms,” she explained. “There was a trend going around the state of the clerks partnering up with the Legal Aid Society to get people some legal advice. We had been trying to do that with (Lee County) Legal Aid (Society) a year before Andrew took that position. We really weren’t able to get it off the ground until Andrew took that position.”

Doggett said Banyai contacted them, which turned into the partnership they have today.

“He started coming to the Justice Center Tuesday mornings. (It has been) very successful. His time is booked for the entire time he is there,” she said.

Due to the success of the service, it was decided some after- hour consultations should be provided in Cape Coral.

“We have had 10 people call to make appointments in the last week for those August dates,” Doggett said, adding that they will continue to work with Banyai and take the calls to book people for appointments.

Those appointments can be made by calling the Lee County Clerk’s Self-Help Center at (239) 533-2835.

Starting on Thursday, Aug. 1, citizens have the opportunity to schedule a 15-minute meeting with an attorney at the United Way House of Cape Coral, 1105 Cultural Park Blvd. The legal consultations will be held from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month, and from 9 a.m. to noon on the first Saturday of each month.

Banyai said on occasion they surpass the 15-minute window by 5 to 10 minutes to understand the problem.

Once the participant begins their appointment, they are introduced to the panel of attorneys and learn what law firm they are from and who is from a pro bono agency and who is from a private firm. After the introductions are done, the participant will be asked to verbally share what brought them to the appointment. Banyai said they draw the individual’s explanation to a close after 10 minutes. He said he generally starts providing advice, and other attorneys will chime in if they have a better idea, or another angle.

“After a while it becomes clear of who is suitable to answer the questions,” Banyai said. “Once we figure out who is best suited to advise the person then they have questions.”

The end goal is to point the citizen in the right direction of how they should verbalize their case in court to have their problem solved.

“It’s hard to figure out who loses by this service. We are providing a great service. This is a wonderful thing we are doing. It makes things more efficient in the court house and it saves taxpayers money. It saves the clerks a lot of time and effort. They get questions that they want to answer, but are prohibited to give out legal advice,” Banyai said.

The free legal advice is provided for such issues as civil lawsuits, bankruptcy and evictions. Small claims, family law matters, and probate cases assistance is also provided. They do not give advice, assistance, on criminal matters.

“You would expect it to be all one sided on a given legal issue,” Banyai said adding that they have individuals on both sides of legal questions.

When asked what he enjoys most about offering the service, his reply was the people who come back and tell them what happened in the courtroom, and what a difference it made in their lives to seek the society’s help.

For more information visit www.leeclerk.org, or LeeCountyLegalAid.org.