The Blair County Bar Association, an organization comprised of 200-plus lawyers, is teaming up with MidPenn Legal Services to address a surge in mortgage and credit card defaults.
The economic woes affecting many parts of the nation have crept into the county court system in the form of lawsuits with banks and mortgage companies suing those who owe them money.
The deluge of new cases has alarmed court officials, and the organization that represents county lawyers is putting together a new program to provide free and low-cost legal services to residents in crisis.
Court records compiled by Prothonotary Carol Newman illustrate the problem.
Ten years ago, Blair County had 117 mortgage foreclosures. Last year, the number grew to 350, and through the first five months of this year, 170 have been filed.
The uptick in credit card defaults is even more dramatic.
Newman's statistics from 2007 show 371 credit card lawsuits. There were 414 through May of this year.
The increase in the two areas means 58 more court filings a month, or almost 700 additional cases a year - not to mention an indicaton of severe financial problems among residents.
Attorney Jeff Fleming, president of the bar association, and his board of governors voted to work with MidPenn, which provides aid to the poor, in obtaining a $9,800 grant from a fund known as Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts.
The state Supreme Court established the fund from interest earned by lawyers on escrow accounts, and the money is used to assist legal services statewide.
The fund provides money for training attorneys and special programs.
The grant is the first awarded to the bar association and will be used to help residents facing mortgage foreclosure and credit card default and victims of ''predatory lending,'' a term used to describe hidden expenses and other problems residents may not understand when they borrow money.
Diana Ingersoll, a longtime attorney with MidPenn, said the bar association and her group decided to ''move forward on this [grant] because there is a need."
''The legal needs of the people living in poverty are not being met. I don't think the legal needs of the poor have ever been met,'' she said.
Under the new program, Mid-Penn will select the cases and assign them to attorneys who volunteer to work with the poor.
Mid-Penn will train the lawyers so they know the laws concerning mortgages and other lending practices.
Attorneys will be expected to handle one case for free but in subsequent cases will be paid $30 an hour.
A committee comprised of Fleming, Ingersoll, attorney Traci Naugle, David Trevaskis of the Pennsylvania Bar Association and Rhonda White, a Blair County resident, will oversee the program.
Ingersoll said Blair County does not have an organized pro bono program.
''All we can do is hope. We are reaching out to the attorneys,'' she said.
She said the grant for the program will run from July 1 through June 30, 2009.
Training for the volunteer attorneys will take place in September, she said.
The bar association's effort to help the poor is an example of how the lawyers' group is becoming more active in the community, Fleming said.
The group also sponsors a program to reach out to schools to teach rights and responsibilities, hoping in the end to develop strong residents.
The bar's new effort has been successful, Fleming said.
''We've gained traction and built momentum to carry into the future. We are creating a footprint so that future leaders can step into it,'' he said.
The pro bono program will be a test of the newly organized bar, but Naugle, leader of Blair County's Young Lawyers and the state's Young Lawyers Association, believes local attorneys will respond.
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.