Compass: Spirit of MLK inspires free legal advice in Alaska

In 1993, a decade after the U.S. Congress recognized the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a national holiday, another federal law endorsed the idea that citizens devote the day to "service opportunities" -- specifically "activities reflecting the life and teachings of Martin Luther King Jr., such as cooperation and understanding among racial and ethnic groups, nonviolent conflict resolution, equal economic and educational opportunities, and social justice."

This coming MLK Day -- Jan. 20 -- will be marked in communities across the country by food and clothing drives, job fairs and neighborhood cleanups. Citizens will build beds for the homeless, collect school supplies for needy children, spruce up parks and march in unity parades.

Here in Alaska, more than 150 lawyers in three cities will reflect the spirit of the holiday by giving free legal advice to people who need it.

Lawyers and judges make a living endorsing and facilitating "nonviolent conflict resolution." The Alaska bar is full of good lawyers, and our court system is open and honest. But as much as we do to resolve conflicts through the courts, we still fall short as a community when it comes to "equal opportunity" and "social justice," two other goals that Congress found in the example of Dr. King.

Studies invariably show that thousands of Alaskans have legal needs that go unmet. These are people who need a lawyer but can't afford to pay for one. Their problems may involve the custody of their children, the insurance claim they don't know how to file, their relations with their landlord, the alimony that hasn't been paid, the government benefit they're entitled to but haven't received, the abusive treatment by a spouse, the lemon car.

Each MLK Day since 2010, the Alaska Bar Association, the Alaska Court System and Alaska Legal Services Corporation have jointly sponsored free legal clinics that at least make a start at meeting these needs. Lawyers and other legal professionals volunteer their time to give legal advice, generally in 15-minute increments, to anyone who walks in the door, first-come, first-served. Some of the lawyers specialize in family law (divorce, child custody, domestic violence, adoption); others have experience with landlord-tenant law; others know something about public benefits (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid).

Of course not every problem can be solved in a 15-minute consultation; not every question can be answered. But some can be. And sometimes it helps just to know what your rights are, whether your problem is something that the legal system can resolve, whether there are relevant self-help resources, whether it would be worthwhile to follow up later with another lawyer.

The consultations are one-on-one and entirely confidential. There are no income qualifications. The clinics try to accommodate speakers of any language. People who take advantage of this free service may have to stand in line for a little while, but they are sure to leave with a better understanding of their rights and of what our legal system can and can't do for them.

In 1963 Dr. King wrote a famous letter from the Birmingham jail about the need to resist unjust laws. Though not a lawyer, he wrote eloquently about the law and its essential place in the community. We've come a long way since 1963 -- the law having evolved dramatically along with our sense of social justice -- and lawyers played an important part in that evolution. But the movement toward perfect justice can only be incremental; sometimes it comes in 15-minute blocks donated by volunteers still looking to Dr. King's example for inspiration.

If you know people who might benefit from a lawyer's advice, direct them to the following locations on Jan. 20:

• Anchorage: Mountain View Boys & Girls Club, 315 Price St. (noon-6 p.m.)

• Fairbanks: Rabinowitz Courthouse, 101 Lacey St. (10 a.m.-4 p.m.)

• Juneau (two locations): Juneau Christian Center, 8001 Glacier Highway (9 a.m.-noon) and Dimond Courthouse, 123 Fourth St. (1-5 p.m.)

Peter Maassen is a justice of the Alaska Supreme Court. He serves as co-chair of the Court's Committee on Access to Civil Justice.