Laureen Kelly, Dougherty County Law Library
Laureen Kelly, who runs the law library, said even if there were more lawyers, few could afford them. (John Disney/Daily Report)

Tremeshia Wilson crossed the threshold with her shoulders tilted forward, as if pressed down by an invisible weight. She was pushing a wheelchair carrying her grandfather, who in his late 60s has lost a leg and his sight to the ravages of diabetes. Scampering ahead was her 3-year-old son. He was pulling the hand of her grandmother—the boy’s great-grandmother—who was having difficulty walking and needed a chair. The mother, granddaughter and college student bore a worried expression that seemed to hide her real age, 19.

“We need an attorney,” she said. But there was no money for that.

“There’s no food in the cabinets,” said her grandfather, holding his head in his hands and starting to weep.

The story tumbled out among the rows of books surrounding the desk of Laureen Kelly, a lawyer turned librarian who runs the Daugherty County Law Library. Kelly’s library has become a self-help center for people who need a lawyer but can’t afford a private attorney in the rural South Georgia region surrounding Albany.

Wilson explained that her grandmother receives a teacher’s retirement pension. “It didn’t come, and they live paycheck to paycheck,” she said.

Instead, a letter from the pension fund announced that the check had been sent to an unnamed new address upon the request of a person with the grandmother’s power of attorney. The grandmother didn’t recall signing over her power of attorney to anyone. Wilson wanted to know how to go about revoking that power of attorney and making sure the grandmother receives her own pension check in the future.

“I’m not your lawyer,” Kelly said, repeating a disclaimer she gives to each of the 20 or 30 patrons she serves every day. “But I can give you resources to help you.”

The first choice is to find the family a free legal aid lawyer. Kelly called the Albany office of Georgia Legal Services, just a half mile away. The grandparents would be eligible for legal aid because they’re over 65, whether or not their income falls below poverty guidelines.

But Kelly was told that because the legal aid office doesn’t have enough lawyers to handle the need, they couldn’t take any new clients except for emergencies for the rest of the month, even though it was only Nov. 4.

“You don’t define having no food in the house as an emergency?” Kelly asked into the phone.

She hung up and explained that an emergency for legal aid purposes has to be limited to court dates coming up in the current month. She said the family could get a legal aid lawyer next month.

Kelly did what she could. She helped Tremeshia Wilson use the library’s fax machine to send a note to the teachers retirement pension fund to attempt to stop payment on the check and generate a new one. They discussed whether to request a guardianship for the grandmother so they could create a court date in November, but decided against that idea. Kelly referred the grandparents to community services for the elderly.

The family spent about 45 minutes in the library, including most of what would have been Kelly’s half hour off for lunch. She even gave her purple grapes to the little boy, taking time to wash them first.

Kelly said the family was typical of the people served by the law library, one of the busiest of about 10 legal help centers funded by court fees and run by local governments.

Law librarians like Kelly are working to fill the gap between the need for legal services and the lack of access to attorneys, particularly in rural communities like those surrounding Albany in deep South Georgia, according to Michael Monahan, pro bono director for Georgia Legal Services.

Just before the Wilsons came in, Kelly saw a 35-year-old man who wanted to know how to secure visitation rights to see his 10-year-old son, whose mother he never married. Kelly explained the process of applying for paternity rights, along with paying child support. Before she finished, the man asked if the process worked the same way in North Carolina. He said he has a 5-year-old daughter there. His children have never met because he has no parental rights. He said he fears being arrested if he takes either child across state lines. Kelly gave him website addresses with forms and instructions for both states.

The visitor after the Wilson family was a woman who couldn’t afford a lawyer and was seeking help with a divorce. Legal aid lawyers, again because of their heavy workload, don’t handle divorce or family law matters, except in cases of crisis caused by domestic violence. Kelly said divorces can be particularly unfair when one party can afford a lawyer but the other can’t.

Kelly graduated from the University of Georgia Law School in 1992 and worked at a law firm in Athens, but decided to move to Albany to be near family and become a librarian nearly a decade ago. While she was still finishing her master’s degree in library science through an online program with Florida State University, Daugherty County hired her to set up the law library. Like other county employees there, she said, she hasn’t had a raise since.

She has kept meticulous records. Kelly’s annual report for the fiscal year that ended in July shows she took more than 15,000 reference questions in the past year and helped more than 2,400 visitors to the library. Only 139 of those were lawyers. The rest were laypeople looking for help representing themselves.

The people Kelly sees in Albany generally lack for more than a lawyer and money. They live below what she calls “the digital divide.” Most do not have a computer or even the most basic Internet skills.

“It’s very labor-intensive,” Kelly said of her work. “You have to hand it to them on a platter.”

She provides legal forms, instructions and information on a wide variety of topics. The leading need is family law related to divorce, protective orders, custody issues, child support and adoption. General law, criminal law and just about every category imaginable follow.

“You’d be amazed at how often I have people come to me with a parental kidnapping situation, which is horrible,” she said.

Kelly sounded worried about the unrepresented patrons she tries to help. “It’s easy for things to go wrong without a lawyer,” she said.

While 86 percent of her visitors in the past year came from Albany or Dougherty County, the rest came from 40 other Georgia counties, including many of those on the underserved list, as well as 14 other states.

Of the reported six counties with no lawyers, Kelly said, “Even if there was a lawyer in those counties, unless there is a pro bono program going on, people couldn’t afford it.”