Law Practice

Lawsuit Targets Alleged CA 'Legal Aid' Scam

The phrase “legal aid” is used in a Northern California business name. But contrary to what that phrase suggests, the company isn’t a nonprofit legal aid clinic.

Instead, the Legal Center for Legal Aid is a sham business that misrepresents itself in order to scam would-be clients out of their hard-earned money without providing promised legal help, a California lawsuit contends. The plaintiffs, four individuals and two legitimate legal aid clinics, claim false advertising, fraud and unlawful practice of law, among other counts, and have asked a Contra Costa Superior Court to issue an injunction shutting down the sham legal aid clinic, reports the San Jose Mercury News.

Morrison & Foerster brought the complaint (PDF) on behalf of the plaintiffs, who it is representing on a pro bono basis, the firm says in a press release. It describes the “legal aid” business, which it believes operated throughout the state using a toll-free 800 number, as “a phony legal business that targeted the elderly and infirm.” Most of the actual and potential plaintiffs apparently were individuals seeking help with evictions.

One reason why such so-called legal aid clinics apparently have been able to stay in business for months or even years is that there has been little publicity about their operations, according to Angela Padilla, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs.

“While there have been notices in small-town Northern California papers about the ‘Legal Center for Legal Aid’ scam, and warnings posted in senior centers, the swindlers have thus far managed to fly this fraud largely under the radar,” she says.

Representatives of the so-called legal aid clinic couldn’t be reached for comment by the Mercury News.

The alleged legal aid scammers in Northern California apparently weren’t the first. The current lawsuit was preceded by a 2005 Los Angeles Superior Court judgment shutting down for-profit organizations known as “California Law Clinic” and “Legal Aid” and ordering them to pay $1.6 million to the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, the Mercury News says.

In addition to the financial cost to victims, such enterprises harm legitimate legal aid clinics because once-unwary victims are now far more vigilant, notes David Levin, an attorney in the Contra Costa County branch office of Bay Area Legal Aid. After their initial experience with a “legal aid” clinic, “it takes a while to repair the attorney-client relationship,” he says.

Updated 3:04 p.m. CST 11/02/2007 to CORRECT the Legal Center for Legal Aid name.

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