May 17, 2021
By Scott Merrill
On June 1, the NH Pro Bono Referral Program and the Legal Advice and Referral Center (LARC) will merge to become 603 Legal Aid.
The merger was formally announced to the public on Thursday, May 6, at the NH Campaign for Legal Services Virtual 2021 Campaign Kickoff Breakfast.
The product of over two years of planning, the merger will help to meet a growing need of low-income people in New Hampshire seeking free legal services.
“This is the single most significant change in the delivery of legal services for needy citizens in decades,” said George Moore, Executive Director of the New Hampshire Bar Association and one of the original committee planning members. “While we started talking about the possibilities before the pandemic, the ensuing shutdown of the economy made the need all that more urgent.”
Newly hired Executive Director Sonya Bellafant, said the merger will provide full representation for some clients.
“We are committed to expanding the scope of the services previously offered by LARC and Pro Bono,” Bellafant told the Bar News. “603 Legal Aid will provide statewide, centralized holistic in-take to readily identify pressing legal issues efficiently. Our objective is also to expand civil legal aid capacity by providing direct representation via staff attorneys, pro bono counsel and other referrals. These changes will ideally expand access and capacity to free civil representation to those who are struggling to preserve the basic necessities of life.”
Bellafant was most recently director of the Tennessee Senior Law Alliance, and was selected to lead the new program after a national executive search conducted by a collaborative committee of leaders from the staff and boards of LARC, Pro Bono and NH Legal Assistance.
“603 Legal Aid and New Hampshire Legal Assistance exist to bring the possibility of justice to people who face housing and food insecurity, who face violence at home, and who fight for dignity against power every single day of their lives,” said LARC Board Chairman Deborah Kane Rein at the NH Campaign for Legal Services Kickoff Breakfast on May 6.
Rein received the Campaign’s John E. Tobin, Jr., Justice Award in recognition of her tireless leadership of the merger, and her career as a staff attorney, mediator and educator.
She thanked the committee who worked on the merger for nearly three years, and praised the selfless work of LARC Executive Director Breckie Hayes Snow and Pro Bono Director Ginny Martin, who have participated fully in the work to expand legal aid through this merger.
“This transformative change, which will make legal aid in New Hampshire stronger than ever, would not have been possible without Deborah’s determination, her leadership, and above all her commitment to putting legal aid clients first. She has devoted countless hours of volunteer work to make this transformative change a reality,” said Campaign Co-Chairman Michael A. Delaney.
One of the changes the merger will bring for NHLA and 603 Legal Aid is the creation of a statewide in-take process for people seeking civil legal aid. The consolidation is supported by findings in the latest statewide civil legal needs assessment, completed in 2020 by the NH Access to Justice Commission. The report, based on interviews with nearly 1,000 stakeholders, revealed on-going confusion with the in-take system for civil legal aid.
“This is an opportunity for us to establish a system that minimizes the frustration, and optimizes the community resources and the access to our services. That will give our clients peace of mind that will ultimately change the trajectory not only for that client but for the other individuals in that household, specifically the children,” Bellafant said.
The civil legal needs assessment also found a need for more attorneys in New Hampshire as well as a desire for attorneys to do legal review work, whether as a staff attorney or as a pro bono volunteer.
“People want us to have more lawyers, they want us to have longer hours,” said NH Legal Assistance Executive Director Sarah Mattson Dustin. “Those are great goals that we will strive toward together, but in the reality of limited resources, having a system that is as efficient and easy to access as possible, will help us reach more people.”
603 Legal Aid and NH Legal Assistance will fundraise jointly through the NH Campaign for Legal Services.
The Campaign’s 2021 Breakfast raised more than $93,000 to support civil legal aid, including sponsors Bernstein Shur, Nixon Peabody, Northeast Delta Dental, and Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green.
“The reputation of the community in New Hampshire, particularly the private bar, has already reached my ears long before I had reached the state border,” Bellafant said. “People cannot speak well enough of the entities who have come together to ensure the success of NH Legal Assistance and going forward, 603 Legal Aid. I am eagerly looking forward to meeting everyone who has worked tirelessly for the last two and a half years to make 603 Legal Aid a reality.”