People in desperate situations all across Lee County are turning to Andrew Banyai for help. The legal assistance that Banyai, the executive director of the Lee County Legal Aid Society, provides for free at the Clerk of Court’s Self Help Center is one of many reasons county commissioners on Tuesday presented him with the prestigious Paulette Burton Citizen of the Year Award.
The accolade goes each year to a Lee County citizen who has provided outstanding civic contributions to Lee County government. It was created in 1991 to memorialize Burton, a longtime Sanibel resident and government watchdog who died tragically in an automobile crash.
“It is such an incredible honor to be recognized along with Burton and all the vastly accomplished people who have won this award in the past,” Banyai said. “This, really, is about making Lee County a better place and the contributions all of us can make toward that goal.”
Banyai spends every Tuesday afternoon answering legal questions of all kinds at the Self Help Center, offering as much insight as he can to help people who can’t afford an attorney sort through cases too complex for them to effectively resolve on their own. People emerge with a sense of relief, direction, and a fighting chance against potentially devastating outcomes.
“A lot of these people are desperate and scared, and all they really need is just some basic guidance,” Banyai said. “Not everyone can afford an attorney, but everyone should be able to obtain a basic understanding of their legal circumstances and how to deal with them. That’s what we’re trying to provide access to here.”
Banyai pursues the same goal throughout his work with the Legal Aid Society, which is committed to justice for those who need it most. He dove head-first into his work when he started in February 2018, a culmination of a life-changing series of events.
He had spent more than a decade as a trial attorney when a freak accident destroyed his right eye and triggered the onset of a latent genetic defect in his left eye. It left his vision profoundly and permanently compromised, and he could no longer perform some of the basic functions of his job.
That’s when he sought the position he has now, for which his disability is no hindrance. Within months, he’d cut the time it takes Legal Aid to respond to people who reach out for help from between six and 10 weeks to a mere 72 hours. He helped forge a partnership between Legal Aid and the United Way to help struggling clients get basic necessities like food, clothing and shelter. And Legal Aid has begun offering advice and counsel, if not formal representation, to a broader segment of the public.
“We have an opportunity to serve the community in a more holistic way than we have in the past,” Banyai said.
Banyai recruits other attorneys to address the vast need for legal assistance in Lee County through his role as co-chair of the Lee County Bar Association’s Pro Bono Committee. He’s also an active board member with After the Rain, a Lee County organization providing transitional housing for women recovering from addiction, homelessness and domestic violence. Thanks in part to Andrew’s work, county judges have grown to have an uncommon level of trust in After the Rain and often make referrals.
What time Andrew has that isn’t dedicated to civic duty he spends with wife Cindy and three young children, ages 9, 6 and 2.
Learn about Banyai’s background and his work with the Legal Aid Society at leecountylegalaid.org.