- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - There’s a gap in the legal landscape in Rhode Island, one that leaders of a new nonprofit law center said Thursday they hope to fill.

The Rhode Island Center for Justice will provide legal services to low-income residents as well as advocacy to community groups, said Miriam Weizenbaum, a founding attorney of the center. Weizenbaum and co-founder Amato DeLuca partnered with Roger Williams University’s School of Law to create the center, located at the school’s Providence campus.

Weizenbaum said she and her colleagues realized that low-income Rhode Islanders - particularly the working poor and immigrants - lacked access to civil legal services. In most states, this gap is filled by nonprofit law centers, she said.

With the launch of the Center for Justice, these families will have “somebody to advocate for their rights and make a difference,” Weizenbaum said. She was joined Thursday by Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, other state officials and community stakeholders to celebrate the center’s opening.

Robert McCreanor, the center’s executive director, said he and his staff have been taking cases for the past six weeks and holding legal clinics twice a month at Fuerza Laboral, a workers’ rights center in Central Falls.

“They’re packed,” McCreanor said of the legal clinics. “Families are lining up out the door.”

Legal services are often out of reach for the working poor because they don’t meet federal poverty guidelines, making them ineligible for federally funded aid. The Center for Justice aims to expand legal assistance to this population, in particular by partnering with community groups.

Next week, the center will start an in-house legal clinic at the Community Action Partnership, which provides assistance to 10,000 low-income households in Providence each year, said Melissa Husband, the organization’s executive director. She said clients often have questions about their legal rights but don’t know where to go for help.

In addition to legal services, the center will offer two-year fellowships to graduates of Roger Williams University’s School of Law so they can get hands-on experience in poverty law, said Michael Yelnosky, dean of the law school.

“There is desperate need for more poverty lawyers in the community,” Yelnosky said. “It’s a win-win for the center and the law school.”

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