Just after 1 p.m. on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, Matthew Brady walks into the King County Courthouse library carrying a beat-up leather satchel and a box of papers.
He sets the box on a table, writes "sign-up sheet" on a piece of paper and tapes it to the table.
He then hefts his box and satchel to a tiny conference room.
For the next two hours, he'll wait there for those whose phones are ringing off the hook with calls from debt collectors.
As one of three lawyers staffing the walk-in Debt Collection Defense Clinic, Brady's advice is free. The Northwest Justice Project started the clinic in June to help low-income people.
Brady's goal, he said, is to teach people about their rights and the possible defenses they might have when a debt collector sues them for money.
First and foremost, people must force the debt collector to prove they actually owe the money.
Many collection agencies "buy debt" from credit card and other companies that have written off an account. In many cases, the secondary debt collectors don't have the original paperwork or pursue the wrong party because of mistakes or slipshod practices.
For example, some debt collectors hand -- or "serve" -- a lawsuit notice to anyone in a household or just leave it on the doorstep, whether the actual debtor named in the lawsuit lives or has ever lived there.
Such "gutter service" makes it possible for the collection agency to get judgments ordering payment without debtors ever knowing they needed to go to court, Brady said.
Collection agencies also call people's workplaces after being told not to -- which is illegal, Brady said.
"That's probably the most egregious so far, the debt collector misbehaving," he said.
Of the 20 or so people who have shown up for the Tuesday afternoon clinic, most are facing these issues, Brady said.
The clinic is a pilot modeled after the Housing Justice Project, a free legal clinic that the Northwest Justice Project started to help those facing eviction, said Fred Corbit, a senior attorney with the nonprofit.
Given the lingering effects of the recession, Corbit said debt seemed the next logical arena in which to offer legal aid.
Prior to starting the clinic, Corbit said the Northwest Justice Project and law students from Seattle University observed debt cases in local district courts.
What they saw was disturbing, Corbit said. In some cases, collection attorneys ignored evidence that an identity thief, not the alleged debtor, had run up credit card charges.
In a number of cases, collection agencies also pursued the wrong person or debts past the legal time limit. Corbit said the cases against non-English speakers were particularly troubling because defendants couldn't explain that many Vietnamese people in Seattle have the last name Nguyen, for example.
The Northwest Justice Project may continue staffing the debt clinic on a permanent basis if enough people show up on Tuesdays over the next few months.
The clinic helps people identify and articulate the right legal argument for their problem, but it cannot alleviate debt that people legitimately owe and does not provide assistance with bankruptcy proceedings, Corbit said.
"You may not owe the debt or it's the wrong person," he said, "but if you don't know [how] to express those defenses in a way the court will accept, [you] may get hammered."