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Michele Kenney, left, an attorney with Pierce Atwood, and Cheryl Steinberg, director of the New Hampshire Legal Assistance Senior Law Project, are assisting with the Periodic Payment Clinic in Candia Circuit Court. (Jason Schreiber)

Candia clinic offers free legal assistance to residents in need

CANDIA — Katie Cunningham doesn’t know what she would have done without some free legal advice to help her tackle the $2,200 debt she faces after she says she was a victim of identity theft.

The 26-year-old single mother of two young children who couldn’t afford to hire a lawyer turned to the Periodic Payment Clinic established by New Hampshire Legal Assistance to help guide her through the court system.

“Being able to have the free assistance in person was great. Having someone there to steer you in the right direction is very helpful,” said the Candia woman, who says she incurred debt after her purse was stolen when she was 19 and someone made unauthorized charges.

Cunningham was one of a handful of clients who showed up at Monday’s clinic at the Candia Circuit Court.

The clinic is held once a month in Candia, but in May will expand to a second location at the Plymouth Circuit Court.

The clinic began 18 months ago as a way to offer free advice, counsel and protection to low-income debtors.

Quentin Blaine of Blaine Law Offices in Plymouth, who began helping at the Candia clinic last year, is a volunteer with the New Hampshire Bar Association’s Pro Bono Referral Program and will serve as the lead volunteer for the new Plymouth location.

“Lawyers are in court on a routine basis and litigants aren’t. It’s a familiar environment for us, and I think it helps to have an advocate. We have an adversary system and I think it functions better when each party can have an advocate and is trained in the rules and procedures for court,” Blaine said.

New Hampshire Legal Assistance began the Candia clinic as a way to help senior citizens with debt better understand their protected income. For instance, Social Security and aid to the disabled are protected and someone who falls into debt can’t be legally forced to use that income to pay off the debt when a judge issues an order.

In addition, the first $362.50 of a person’s weekly paycheck is also protected from collection, said Cheryl Steinberg, director of the New Hampshire Legal Assistance Senior Law Project.

Because they may not understand the rules, some people already living well below the federal poverty level dip into their protected income to pay their creditors.

While the clinic was originally designed to assist seniors, it now helps people young and old.

There are no strict financial guidelines for people ages 60 and over.

“The debt collection industry has exploded in the last several years with the economic downturn, and there’s this whole new big industry of debt buyers, and they buy debt for pennies on the dollar, literally, but they still have the right to sue for the full amount. They know full well that these people can’t afford to pay because they’re buying these old delinquent debts,” Steinberg said.

One of the main goals of the clinic is to make sure clients’ rights are protected in collection cases and that they’re not being asked to make payments they can’t afford, Steinberg said.

“They still owe the money. Even though they can’t be forced to use their Social Security, it’s not like the judgment goes away,” she said.

Michele Kenney, an attorney with Pierce Atwood, spent Monday observing at the Candia courthouse as she prepares to begin volunteering her time at the clinic in June.

Kenney has done pro bono work for the Legal Advice and Referral Center in the past.

“It’s a scary thing for people to come into the legal system. It’s foreign and in this case these are folks who have judgments against them for whatever reason, most likely didn’t have legal representative earlier on in the process and here they are,” said Kenney, who stressed the importance of sitting down with clients to explain their rights and helping them navigate the system.

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