I started working for Servant Year in mid-January and was placed with Consumer Bankruptcy Assistance Project (CBAP), the country’s only pro bono non-profit bankruptcy law firm. CBAP provides a truly unique service, allowing people who are drowning in debt get a fresh start without paying the costs of a bankruptcy attorney. To better demonstrate how monumental this is, let me explain exactly what bankruptcy is. When I tell people where I work, few people seem to get what I do or with whom I work. Some people misunderstand bankruptcy, while others are hostile towards it, and most everyone else is somewhere in between – our clients included. There is an unfortunate stereotype surrounding bankruptcy that falsely claims that people filing for bankruptcy are simply exploiting the system and shirking responsibility.
CBAP only serves low-income individuals, so I cannot speak for middle-income or wealthy individuals who file bankruptcy, but no one comes to CBAP looking to exploit the system. Furthermore, people who come into CBAP to file for bankruptcy cannot actually pay off their debts. Our clients often feel shame for needing to file bankruptcy, but they should not. They are generally honest individuals who want to pay their debts, who abhor the possibility of bankruptcy, but who have had some dramatic change in their lives. Normally, these changes stress their already limited resources, pushing them into the red for months and years on end. Their medical bills soar through the roof as they are diagnosed with a lifelong illness; or they are stuck in the middle of an expensive divorce; or their parent dies leaving no one else to pay for the casket; or they face countless other hurdles that would financially burden any family. Some work but cannot find anything that pays better, some are looking for work constantly, some cannot work and only receive public benefits – which are not much at all – but they all do their best to stay on top of bills. They never imagined that they could fall behind on their bills, but they received some fundamental shock. As they fall further and further behind, they are constantly harassed and intimidated by collections agencies. The people who come to CBAP to file for bankruptcy are doing so out of need. Have they made mistakes? Of course they have, but what principally pushed them into debt is generally something over which they had no control.
So, let’s revisit what CBAP does. Three part-time law students and I interview the clients and work with them to prepare their files for bankruptcy court under the supervision of a full-time staff attorney, a full-time executive director, and a part-time supervising attorney. Once the file is prepared, the attorneys submit the petition and represent the client in bankruptcy court. This is all done for free. For our clients, having to pay for a bankruptcy lawyer could make filing literally impossible, so this service is indispensable. In 2005, Congress attempted to revise the bankruptcy code to make it harder for people to file, and unfortunately they went above and beyond the call of duty. The process for filing bankruptcy is long and stressful to put it mildly. The fact that CBAP guides people who desperately need to file through this system is incredible. Through CBAP clients can receive a fresh start, as bankruptcy can be used to restore utilities, relieve stress, and protect them from aggressive creditors.
Josh Serves as a Paralegal at Consumer Bankruptcy Assistance Project's Fresh Start Legal Clinic.