Community Government

Free legal pop-ups debut this week in Gig Harbor

Posted on February 12th, 2024 By:

Legal advice may not, at first, seem as fundamental a human need as food or medical care. But Bob Vollbracht, volunteer leader of the Gig Harbor Key Peninsula Housing-Homeless Coalition, has seen the profound benefit of free legal services to low-income clients shaken by situations such as domestic violence, child custody disputes or looming evictions.

“They are vulnerable, and when something bad happens to them, legal assistance is critical,” Vollbracht said. He’s often driven clients into Tacoma to get free legal help because it wasn’t available west of the Narrows Bridge.

A new program of legal aid popup clinics kicking off Tuesday, Feb. 13, in Gig Harbor aims to make the peninsula less of a free-legal-services desert. The events take place at Gig Harbor Civic Center from 4 to 6 p.m. on the second Tuesday of each month.

A Tacomaprobono Community Lawyers legal aid popup underway at a Tacoma library branch. From left to right: Valerie Shuman, lawyer volunteer; Laurie Davenport, communications director; Lindsey Russell, housing resource navigator. Photo by Ted Kenney


The city of Gig Harbor, in partnership with non-profit Tacomaprobono Community Lawyers, hosts the new walk-in clinics. On the same day, Tacomaprobono also holds legal aid popups at Key Peninsula Community Services in Lakebay (10 a.m. to noon) and at the Mustard Seed Project in Key Center (1 to 3 p.m.). The new Civic Center clinics give the organization three locations on the peninsula, all on second Tuesdays.

The Gig Harbor and Key Peninsula events are available at no cost to all Pierce County residents. And although Tacomaprobono’s mission is to provide free civil legal services to low-income people, the legal aid popups are open to attendees of all income levels, said Laurie Davenport, the organization’s communications director.

“An important part of the pop-up/outreach concept (is) to be accessible to the public with no pre-screening,” she said. “Income eligibility to receive attorney services from our program is 200% of the federal poverty level, but that doesn’t mean that everyone who has a higher income can afford an attorney, can identify their legal problem correctly, (and) knows where to go to get help.”

“We encourage people to come and bring whatever they have in terms of legal questions,” Davenport said.

Free legal advice and referrals

The clinics offer free legal advice and referrals on civil law matters ranging from housing and landlord/tenant issues, to family law, including marriage dissolution, custody, domestic violence and aging family member protection. Also covered are consumer, debtor/creditor and regulatory matters, wills and estates, medical and healthcare concerns, and even boundary disputes and environmental issues on adjoining properties.

At the clinics, attendees might talk to one of Tacomaprobono’s volunteer lawyers or with a paralegal or other trained outreach staff. The meeting could result in a referral to self-help legal resources, such as websites that offer do-it-yourself divorce documents. Or it might lead to intake for one of Tacomaprobono’s more focused clinics on family law or criminal record expungement.

In a small minority of cases, particularly around evictions, the visit could result in a Tacomaprobono attorney providing representation in court.

Clients are welcome to attend multiple clinics as they work toward their legal goals, Davenport said. For example, for clients seeking to declare bankruptcy, staff can review paperwork over repeated visits, she said. Creating a will might be handled in a similar way.

Fear of the legal system

Impetus for the new Gig Harbor legal aid popups comes in part from the input of organizations such Vollbracht’s housing-homeless coalition, and also from the frequent requests the city receives from the public for help with legal matters, said Shealynn Smiley, manager of the city’s Housing, Health and Human Services program.

“Partnering with a legal resource (at no cost to the city) is an opportunity that all residents of Gig Harbor deserve to have,” she said.

An important benefit of the legal aid popup clinics is to motivate people to act on legal issues affecting them, said Pat DeMarco, a lawyer who retired after a 35-year career with Washington’s Office of the Attorney General. She volunteers at the Key Peninsula legal aid popups and said she intends to volunteer at the new Gig Harbor events as well.

Fear of the legal system can actually damage people’s cases, by causing them to wait too long to address issues, DeMarco said. “If you’re afraid of what’s happening, it’s easy to bury your head in the sand,” she said.

“A legal problem can be daunting. The court system can be frightening to people,” she said. For her, part of the satisfaction of volunteering at the clinics is “giving people the peace of mind” that interacting with the legal system “doesn’t have to be as scary” as they imagine.

Former Bar Association program

Tacomaprobono Community Lawyers grew out of the Volunteer Legal Services program of the Tacoma – Pierce County Bar Association. It became independent in 2021, Davenport said.

The organization is fast-growing, currently with about 42 employees, 22 of whom are lawyers, Davenport said. One reason for the growth is that during the Covid-19 pandemic, Washington became the first state to pass a law guaranteeing a right to counsel for people facing eviction hearings.

The new law led to more funding and to a need for more lawyers to provide representation, and Tacomaprobono helps fill the need, she said.