Sponsored by Off Campus and Commuter Association (OOCA) and Resident Hall Association (RHA), WCU students can seek free legal advice from a lawyer provided on campus. This service has been provided for more than 25 years. Lawyer John Winicov began his first year with WCU in the fall. Working for the last 25 years as a lawyer, he has experiences in criminal defense, labor law, personal injury law and group legal services.
Beginning as a public defender for four years, Winicov now works in his own practice as well as working with WCU. The university is the first higher education institution he is working with, as an “umbrella” of group legal services.
Appointments take place on Fridays between 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. This semester, a total of eight appointment days were available to students. Each session lasts up to 15 minutes. In one day, the lawyer typically meets with six or eight students throughout the two hour schedule.
“I’m pretty thorough in the briefing,” Winicov said in seeing each student for 15 minutes of a “condensed counsel.”
Only undergraduate and graduate students are eligible for the free service. In addition to funding from OCCA and RHA, the Graduate Student Association (GSA) contributed for the service to be free of cost to graduate students. By the send of January, 75 students have sought the legal counsel advice. Of these students, 88 percent are undergraduate students with graduate students composing the remaining 12 percent.
Students are allowed to have their parents attend the session if they would like. Lawyer confidentiality of the case applies. Students are recommended to bring documentations in relation to their appointment with the lawyer. This includes citations, leases, etc.
The services provided by Winicov include civil and criminal issues. He cannot represent students as their legal counsel in court due to a conflict of interest. After the session, the lawyer does not know of the outcome of cases that students seek legal advice for.
Winicov is “here for the students” who are interested in police searching knowing their rights in terms of “person, dorm rooms and apartments.” He has suggested to students who have cases with “low amount of evidence” to fight it.
With 95 percent of offenses occurring on campus, Winicov is “surprised at the quantity of offenses” committed on-campus.
Christina Brenner, working for Sykes Administration, has worked to obtain a lawyer for students to have free legal clinics. According to Brenner, there usually is an equal spilt of people who live on or off campus that seek advice from the lawyer available.
Issues include underage drinking, persons hosting parties with alcohol, concerns with housing and landlords, and roommate issues. Brenner said roommate issues form from a resident not paying rent, persons moving in without helping pay for rent and arguments over parking spaces.
Winicov said most of the cases he sees are alcohol related. This includes consumption, possession, supplying to minors and public intoxication. There were “small cases” of drug possession, or drug paraphernalia. He has seen some cases of shoplifting as well.
Most students typically sign up to meet with the lawyer “after the fact” of their offense.
Administrators of the service provided encourage students to seek legal advice prior to legal and civil issues arising. The lawyer is provided with leases of housing contracts for south campus and village apartments, as well as affiliated and traditional housing contracts.
Brenner said students should discuss their lease, both on or off-campus, to understand the consequences of violating their lease. Students can bring their lease to the lawyer to receive help in “understanding” the terms of the lease. This includes the right and restrictions of the landlord entering the apartment.
Other matters involving housing responsibilities that students may seek legal advice on include the consequences of hosting a party with alcohol. Brenner said the lawyer can inform students on what happens if underage guests are found by the police in one’s apartment. Students can learn how to “protect” themselves legally, when they are “hosting a party.”
Brenner created a survey for students to give feedback on the legal service they received. Survey questions asked about the performance of the lawyer as well as the overall experience of the services provided for students to receive free legal counsel.
The survey feedback had a 94 percent response stating their time with the lawyer increased their awareness of their “rights and responsibilities as a citizen.” Winicov said if a student “feels their rights have been violated,” he then suggests that they file a complaint.
“I always tell students what their rights are,” Winicov said. “And I encourage them to plead not guilty.”
By pleading not guilty, Winicov recommends students attempt to have their criminal case lowered to a non-criminal offense, such as a noise ordinance.
Brenner encourages that students use their situation as a “learning opportunity.” For legal issues, she encourages that students, “instead of pleading guilty if they’re innocent, they can challenge” their case. It helps students “learn responsibility” when they handle their cases.
Winicov suggests students should have a lawyer to represent them if necessary. However, he realizes this is costly to the student. According to the website, www.wcupa.edu/och/home/legalaid, the legal consultant can suggest professionals for consideration, or refer students to the Lawyer Referral Service of the Chester County Bar Association.
“I’m speaking on behalf of the students,” John Winicov said.
Of the students who filled out the survey, nearly two thirds said they were “very satisfied” with the legal service from Winicov. Many students also commented on the survey that they would have liked to have had more time in one sitting with the lawyer. The majority of students responded that they found the lawyer to be very or extremely helpful to their situation. All of the students that participated in the survey said they know which “steps to take” next.
“Even though it’s a summary offense, it’s very serious,” Winicov said in relation to alcohol related offenses. It is an offense he explained could prevent students from getting a teaching job, from getting into law school or other such future plans.
At the end of the spring semester, the provided lawyer will hear from students inquiring about not getting their deposits back from their landlords. In other cases, some students ask the lawyer questions about breaking their apartment lease. The free services are not provided in the summertime.
In the fall 2009 semester, 51 students used the counsel services. The whole academic year before this, 93 students used the services that were provided bi-weekly. Brenner said this “may be the largest year we’ll have for services” provided.
Appointments can be made at the information desk at Sykes Student Union, or by signing up on the university’s website. This semester, the remaining appointment will be on April 29.
Ginger Rae Dunbar is a fourth year student majoring in English with a minor in journalism. She can be reached at RD655287@wcupa.edu.