Celebrating 20 Years – Maureen Conley
Maureen Conley is an attorney at Legal Aid of WV (LAWV) who works on family law cases, especially those where domestic violence is a factor. In April 2022, Maureen will officially retire after decades of dedicated advocacy with LAWV. Ahead of her retirement, we asked her a few questions to give her an opportunity to share her work and wisdom, which we will miss dearly.
Why is the concept of justice for all so important to our legal system?
The concept of justice for all (our judicial system) is built on individuals having equal access to the courts, to unbiased treatment by the courts and the premise that we all have fundamental liberty and property rights, which we won’t lose without due process. This concept underlies our constitution and Bill of Rights.
If justice doesn’t work for the little person, then it is not justice.
How did you come to work at Legal Aid? (your background and then your decision and timeframe of working at LAWV)
I came to work at the Legal Aid Society of Charleston in June 1986, upon graduating from Law School at WVU. I had not planned to work for Legal Aid; I thought I would work in helping women with small businesses. But I worked at Appalred one summer and really liked the work. I had no experience with domestic violence prior to working at Legal Aid. I learned about it on the job, from clients, co-workers, shelter workers, and trainings. It was quite an awakening for me. I did not realize how many women and children were affected by domestic violence, or the difficulties they faced in getting away from violent relationships.
Describe your work with Legal Aid over the years.
In some ways, my job has not changed very much. I still do primarily Family Law cases in Kanawha and Boone Counties. But the world around this work has changed a lot. When I started, we had one computer in the office, and I didn’t have access to it. I had access to an IBM Selectric typewriter and had to do most of my own typing. When I first started, the Circuit Judges handled divorces. Magistrate Court handled final Protective Order hearings. Some Judges appointed Divorce Commissioners to hear divorces for them. Protective Orders only lasted for 30 days. You had to file a Motion in Circuit Court to obtain a restraining order when the Protective Order was about to expire. The Family Law Master system came into being after I started at Legal Aid. Family Law Masters heard cases but were not allowed to issue Final Orders. You had to get a Final Order from the Circuit Judge. The Family Court system came into effect later and did allow Judges to issue Final Orders. That system has expanded over the years as well—with Kanawha County now having 5 Family Court Judges, when it had only 2 Family Law Masters.
In terms of the work itself, we have seen the development of greater financial support for domestic violence shelters and for Legal Services offices through VAWA and VOCA funding. This money has provided more advocates to assist people filing for Protective Orders. Having Protective Orders last 90 or 180 days or longer has been enormously helpful to our clients who are typically transitioning to a new home and want to ensure that they have custody of their children, support, continued safety, etc.
There has also been significant changes in Family Law over the years. When I came in, we had the “primary caretaker” custody standard, which was set out in Garska v. McCoy. This case allowed the parent who was primarily providing day to day care for the children to be awarded custody. This custody standard really helped our clients. But the custody standard was changed by statute in 2001. Much of the Domestic Relations Code in chapter 48 was also changed around that time. The terms custody and visitation were both changed to “custodial responsibility.” Parents were awarded decision-making for the children, with a presumption for joint decision-making. Parents now had to submit Parenting Plans, and parents could be sent to mediation to help them work out a parenting plan.
What is the most important lesson you have learned through your advocacy at LAWV?
Family courts can have a significant effect on people’s lives, especially children’s lives. Family court cases can save lives and prevent abuse. It is most important to dignify your client’s experience by telling her story as truthfully, and with as much detail, as possible. If an advocate respects a client’s experience and communicates that respect, the Courts are more likely to understand.
As you come closer to retirement, what are some memories you look back fondly on during your time at Legal Aid of WV?
The people I have worked with at Legal Aid over the years have been really great in terms of their commitment to the work, their collegiality and helpfulness. I have really enjoyed working with Legal Aid staff over the years. We used to be allowed to have parties with alcoholic beverages, which got quite rowdy at times. I still remember a going away party for Mary Jarrell, where we sang some songs with lyrics altered for the occasion.
There have been a few occasions over the years when I have been able to get child back for a client, when the child had been snatched and taken to a different state. Those cases have felt very special. Sometimes you don’t know the ultimate outcome until you run into an old client at the grocery store years later.
I really liked the 2018 Statewide Staff Training dinner we had when everyone dressed up in costumes—those tutus were wonderful!
What are the beliefs or values that underpin your support (and employment with) Legal Aid of WV for so many years?
Individuals (including children) have a right to live without violence and to have their day in court.
What would our communities and courts look like if Legal Aid of West Virginia did not exist?
I think you would find a lot more frustrated people who have gone through the court system or didn’t know they could go through the court system and a lot more frustrated (burnt-out) court officials. In domestic violence cases, Legal Aid plays a critical role in ensuring safety of survivors by connecting them with shelters, shelter advocates, law enforcement and lawyers. So without Legal Aid, there would be fewer survivors getting the intervention they need to preserve their safety.
Having a lawyer or advocate explain legal concepts and rules to clients can reduce Judges’ hearing time and staff time in explaining forms, procedures, and evidence. Overloading judges and staff leads to burn out. Litigants are helped by being more prepared for hearings and by knowing when and how to access the courts. In the case of indigent litigants in many types of civil cases, Legal Aid is frequently the only option for legal help.
When you think of Legal aid of West Virginia what words come to mind?
Smart, empathic, knowledgeable, kind, hard-working people.
How do you explain Legal Aid to those who aren’t familiar with our work?
Legal Aid is an organization which will help you with your basic needs and rights. Its staff will listen to your legal problem and try to help you find answers for it.