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  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom


    Attorney Elliott Berry will be taking his current cases with him when his office, New Hampshire Legal Assistance in Nashua, moves out Friday, and is merged with the Manchester office. Many of his clients seek legal help from foreclosure and other problems that often send them into homelessness.
  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom


    Attorney Elliott Berry talks Thursday, August 18, 2011, about how the disadvantaged clients will suffer when his office, New Hampshire Legal Assistance in Nashua, moves out Friday and is merged with the Manchester office. Many of his clients seek legal help from foreclosure and other problems that often send them into homelessness.
  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom


    Attorney Elliott Berry will be taking his current cases with him when his office, New Hampshire Legal Assistance in Nashua, moves out Friday, and is merged with the Manchester office. Many of his clients seek legal help from foreclosure and other problems that often send them into homelessness.
  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom


    Para-legal Vickie Brooks looks on as Justin Holman removes railings from stairways Thursday, August 18, 2011, in preparation for moving out Friday at New Hampshire Legal Assistance in Nashua. The office has been closed and is merging with the Manchester office.




  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom


    New Hampshire Legal Assistance in Nashua, closed recently, and is merging with the Manchester office.




Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Cuts & Consequences: State budget reductions end free legal help in Nashua

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a series of stories examining the consequences of state budget cuts on area people and programs.

NASHUA – Low-income residents who need free legal assistance will now have to travel to Manchester, or otherwise navigate complex judicial procedures themselves.

The New Hampshire Legal Assistance program – an advocate for impoverished people who can’t afford a lawyer – has shuttered its East Pearl Street office because of state budget cuts.

The nonprofit program had for years earned bipartisan support in the state legislature, but suddenly saw its funding drastically cut this year in the Republican-crafted budget.

As a result, low-income Nashua area residents who want help with Social Security and unemployment benefits, advice on rental and housing issues, and legal protection from domestic violence will have to drive to the NHLA’s closest office in Manchester.

“It’s not headline-grabbing work, but we like to think it makes a difference in people’s lives,” said Elliott Berry, who was the managing attorney at NHLA’s Nashua office.

Berry talked about the closure of the Nashua branch, as well as a NHLA office in Littleton, last Thursday. The next day, he and two other remaining Nashua employees locked the door on the two-story East Pearl Street office for good and headed to Manchester, where they will join a staff that has also lost workers to layoffs.

New Hampshire Legal Assistance provides free help to people who are at 200 percent of the federal poverty level. But with the two office closures, prospective clients now have to seek help at NHLA’s offices in Manchester, Concord, Portsmouth, Berlin and Claremont, where smaller staffs continue handling growing case loads.

NHLA had a Nashua office in the mid 1970s but after its closing, it provided limited assistance in other settings such as the public library. It returned in July 2006 with the opening of its East Pearl Street office.

Every week, the staff had meetings about which cases it could accept – a process followed in the other NHLA offices.

“It’s usually agonizing” because almost everyone needs help, Berry said. “And more often than not, where would they go?”

Knowing how to pursue or respond to a legal writ or how to apply for benefits can be particularly difficult for those with limited education, Berry said.

And NHLA’s Nashua office had served a sizable number of immigrants, Berry said. Two staff members spoke Spanish and made the process easier for many clients, he said.

The irony of the legislature cutting programs such as NHLA to compensate for lost state revenue is that in a bad economy people need free legal assistance the most, Berry said. Home foreclosures and bankruptcy, for instance, are on the rise, and NHLA helps people with such cases in court, he said.

Even if NHLA doesn’t open a case, its staff still provides advice on various issues, a service that would be cost prohibitive almost anywhere else, Berry said.

Aside from having fewer workers to help the many people in need, Berry said he and remaining staff members have been saddened to lose colleagues to layoffs. NHLA staff have been like family, he said.

In 2008, New Hampshire Legal Assistance had a statewide staff of 53, according to its executive director John Tobin. Between the recent state cuts and a loss of charitable funding from the New Hampshire Bar Foundation, NHLA’s staff now numbers 28, he said.

Without doubt, Tobin and Berry said, the biggest blow came this June when the Republican legislature cut NHLA’s funding.

The Senate restored 40 percent of the agency’s budget late in legislative negotiations, after the House’s larger cut earlier in the process, but NHLA still lost $1 million out of a $4 million budget, Tobin said.

In an attempt to protect his organization’s funding, Tobin earlier this year spoke publicly about how NHLA’s cases recover federal benefits to residents through Medicare and Social Security, and how they also increase child support payments – all steps that lessen the fiscal burden on state programs.

“We’ve saved towns and cities lots of dollars,” Tobin told The Telegraph.

But NHLA lost favor with the current legislature, a reversal from the many years in which Republicans and Democrats had supported the organization, he said.

“The need for our services are even greater in a recession,” Tobin said. “It doesn’t make sense to cut legal aid in a recession.”

The annual operating cost for NHLA’s Nashua office was about $500,000, Tobin said. Even though Nashua is the second largest city in the state, NHLA chose to close the office here because it needed to keep the other offices open for the best geographic representation, he said.

The closure of the Nashua office coincides with the state judiciary’s plans to eventually shutter Hillsborough County Superior Court’s southern branch on Spring Street, consolidating operations in Manchester.

These budget decisions may not seem immediately obvious to all residents, but they affect many people, Berry said.

“The people we can’t serve,” Berry said, “You wonder: Do they become homeless statistics?”

Albert McKeon can be reached at 594-5832 or amckeon@nashuatelegraph.com.