Bill Awaits Final Approval from President
Congress has approved a package of higher education amendments that would, in part, establish a program for providing educational debt relief to civil legal aid lawyers. The bill, the Higher Education Opportunity Act (H.R. 4137), was presented to President Bush on August 6 after it passed the House and Senate on July 31. News outlets have reported that the President intends to sign the bill despite earlier opposition to sections unrelated to the legal aid provision.
If signed into law, section 431 of the bill would authorize $10 million for the U.S. Department of Education to distribute as loan repayment assistance grants-$6,000 a year, $40,000 for a lifetime-to full-time civil legal aid lawyers who agree to remain employed as such for at least three years. Priority will be given to lawyers with five years of experience or less who have spent at least 90 percent of that time as legal aid lawyers.
However, participants in the new program could not benefit from a separate loan repayment program established by the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, which became law in September 2007. That program would completely forgive the balance of certain student loans for legal aid lawyers after ten years of service.
The $10 million authorized by the bill will not automatically become available if and when the bill becomes law. Congress will have to appropriate funds for the program through a separate process.
LSC's Board of Directors held its third quarterly meeting of 2008 in Wilmington, Del., from August 1-2.
The meeting began with a visit to the headquarters of the Legal Services Corporation of Delaware, the sole LSC-funded program in the state. LSCD is responsible for serving nearly 100,000 low-income residents out of two offices with a total staff of 14, eight of whom are lawyers. The Board learned how, in the face of such an overwhelming disparity of needs and resources, the program has formed and nurtured partnerships with other state actors-the courts, city agencies, other legal aid providers-to effectively serve its clients.
At a luncheon following the program visit, Wilmington Mayor James M. Baker presented a proclamation to the Board and LSCD "to thank the Board, staff and volunteers of the organization for their steadfast efforts to fulfill the promise of equal justice under law for all Americans." Following the presentation, Delaware Supreme Court Justice Randy J. Holland spoke to the Board and its guests about the broad-based support for legal aid in Delaware, and praised the program and its executive director Douglas B. Canfield for their good work.
Left to Right: Chairman Strickland stands with Delaware Supreme Court Justice Randy J. Holland, LSC President Helaine M. Barnett, and LSCD Executive Director Douglas B. Canfield.
Later that day, at a reception hosted by the Delaware State Bar Association, David Hall, chairman of the LSC Provision for the Delivery of Legal Services Committee, and LSC President Helaine M. Barnett honored four private attorneys for their extraordinary efforts to provide free or low-cost representation to LSCD's clients. The award winners were Tara Ann Blakely, Maggie Ruth Clausell, Vivian A. Houghton, and William F. Jaworski, Jr. Click here for more information about the awards.
Left to Right: LSC Provisions Committee Chairman David Hall stands with volunteer attorney award winners Maggie Clausell, Vivian A. Houghton, Tara Blakely, William Jaworksi, and President Barnett.
In Board committee action, the Provision for the Delivery of Legal Services Committee heard presentations on LSC's recent Executive Director Conference, the ongoing focus on increasing private attorney involvement with LSC-funded programs, LSC's analysis of grantees' technological capacities, the evaluation of the second year of LSC's Pilot Loan Repayment Assistance Program, and delivery and funding issues in Native American legal services programs.
The Operations and Regulations Committee continued to discuss the adoption of additional sanctions to discipline non-compliant grantees, adopted the 2009 grant assurances, discussed changes to LSC's Freedom of Information Act procedures, and reviewed a request for LSC to loosen financial eligibility requirements for victims of natural disasters.
The Audit Committee discussed the development of a protocol governing the acceptance and use of private funds by the Corporation, heard a report from LSC's Inspector General on the process for selecting an auditor, and heard a report on LSC's risk management program.
The Finance Committee also discussed private fundraising, as well as the Corporation's revised operating budget for fiscal year 2008, the status of LSC's appropriation for FY 2009, and how to address a potential shortfall in the Corporation's operating budget.
The Performance Review and Governance Committee continued to discuss the implementation of reforms recommended by the Government Accountability Office, debated proposals for preparing for a successor Board, and discussed the annual performance reviews of the LSC president and inspector general.
The full Board heard reports from LSC's President, Inspector General, and Committee Chairs, and heard a progress report on the Corporation's Strategic Directions for 2006-2010. The Board also adopted a resolution to thank the New Jersey-based law firm of Lowenstein Sandler for their pro bono representation of LSC in an insurance matter. Former LSC Board Chairman Douglas Eakeley is a partner in the firm.
LSC Board Member Sarah M. Singleton was honored with a 2008 Pro Bono Publico Award from the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service at an awards luncheon in New York City on Aug. 11. The award honors individuals and organizations that enhance the dignity of others by improving or delivering volunteer legal services to the poor and disadvantaged.
Singleton, an attorney with the Santa Fe, N.M., law firm of Montgomery & Andrews, has served on the LSC Board since 2006. She is a past president of the New Mexico State Bar and serves as co-chair of the state's Commission on Access to Justice. Singleton helped form the New Mexico Task Force on Legal Services to the Poor, on which she served. She has served on the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants and on the ABA Ad Hoc Committee on State Justice Initiatives.
The American Bar Association's Young Lawyers Division presented its 2008 Fellows Award for Public Service to LSC President Helaine M. Barnett on Aug. 8 during the ABA's annual meeting in New York City. The award was created in 1977 to recognize individuals for their distinguished service to the public and the legal profession. Previous recipients include Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., distinguished members of Congress, judges, and distinguished members of the ABA.
Barnett is the first legal aid attorney to serve as president of LSC, and, now in her fifth year, is the longest serving LSC president. Under her leadership, LSC has emphasized strategies to enhance the quality of legal services provided by LSC-funded programs. LSC also issued a groundbreaking report, "Documenting the Justice Gap in America," which found that 50 percent of eligible clients seeking assistance from LSC-funded programs are turned away because of a lack of program resources.
Thomas A. Fuentes, member of LSC's Board of Directors, was recently appointed to a third two-year term on the Board of Advisors of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, a Congressionally-chartered bipartisan group responsible for overseeing reforms to America's voting systems. Fuentes was originally chosen for the position by former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, and was re-appointed to the post by House Minority Leader John Boehner.
On July 31, LSC President Helaine M. Barnett delivered welcoming remarks at the Management Information Exchange's 2008 National Fundraising Conference in Washington, D.C. She praised the nearly 200 participants-development directors, campaign coordinators, grants managers, and executive directors-for persevering on their never-ending uphill climb to secure adequate resources to provide meaningful access to justice for poor Americans.
"LSC recognizes, supports, and applauds your efforts in resource development," she said. "Thank you for all that you have done and will continue to do to obtain additional resources to help make equal access to justice and high-quality legal services a reality in our communities."
Treefa Aziz and Sean Driscoll from LSC's Office of Government Relations and Public Affairs also participated in the conference. Aziz, LSC's government affairs representative, presented at a session focused on effectively framing legal aid messages in today's economic and political climate. Driscoll, who produces LSC's electronic newsletter, joined Angela Tacker and Joe Surkiewicz, communications directors of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society and Maryland Legal Aid Bureau, respectively, on a "Media 101" panel focused on how legal aid programs can use the media to further their missions.
During the American Bar Association's recent Annual Meeting in New York City, LSC President Helaine M. Barnett spoke to the ABA's Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants about important developments affecting legal aid in Congress and at LSC. She highlighted the May 22 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on closing the justice gap, LSC's recent Executive Director Conference, and LSC's action plan to increase private attorney involvement with its grantees. LSC Board Member Herbert S. Garten attended the meeting as a special advisor to the committee.
The Legal Services Corporation and LexisNexis are pleased to announce the launch of the HotDocs® Software Donation Program for legal aid programs that help the nation's poor. Under the program, LexisNexis will provide free HotDocs® software to eligible organizations.
HotDocs® is a software program that saves time by creating templates for documents that law offices use every day, such as court forms, real estate and lease agreements, contracts, proposals, correspondence, compliance reports and other material. Once templates are automated, they can be used to produce customized documents in a fraction of the time it takes to create a document from scratch.
"This is very generous of LexisNexis, and the Legal Services Corporation applauds this decision to provide free software that will contribute to the efficiency of LSC-funded programs and enhance the legal assistance provided to low-income Americans," said LSC President Helaine M. Barnett.
Note: All LSC-funded programs are eligible to apply for the free software.
LSC is currently seeking applications from attorneys in 70 grantees to participate in the Corporation's Loan Repayment Assistance Program, which provides educational debt relief to underpaid legal aid lawyers. Participants will receive loans of $5,600 a year, which will be forgiven after one year of successful employment with the grantee. Applications are due by August 31.
Richard "Kirt" West, former inspector general of LSC, has received the 2007-2008 Fraud Examiner of the Year Award from the D.C.-area chapter of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners for his more than 20 years of service in the Inspector General community. West served as LSC's IG from September 2004 to August 2007. Before that he was an assistant IG at the U.S. Postal Service, assistant counsel to the IG at the Central Intelligence Agency and IG counsel at the U.S. Department of Labor. West is currently Senior Manager in the Economic Advisory Services practices of the Grant Thorton accounting firm.
The Boards of Directors of Ohio's Community Legal Aid Services and the Legal Aid and Defender Association of Detroit, Mich., have adopted resolutions aimed at increasing the involvement of private attorneys in the delivery of legal services to their clients, bringing to 93 the total number of programs who have adopted such resolutions.
LSC is encouraging all program Boards of Directors to adopt pro bono resolutions modeled after one adopted by LSC's Board in April 2007. Urging programs to adopt local resolutions is a key element of LSC's private attorney involvement action plan, entitled "Help Close the Justice Gap, Unleash the Power of Pro Bono."
Detroit's Legal Aid and Defender Association has partnered with the Wayne State University Law School to form the Child Advocacy Clinic, which will connect law students with children needing legal representation in abuse, neglect, adoption and other proceedings. The fledgling lawyers will conduct all of the legal leg-work and the legal aid program will provide the clients and office space. The clinic will be supervised by William Ladd, senior staff attorney with the legal aid program's Juvenile Law Division and an adjunct law school professor at Wayne State. "The Child Advocacy Clinic is truly a win-win initiative for our students and our community," said Robert M Ackerman, dean of the law school. "The practical experience and knowledge that our students will gain from this opportunity will be invaluable to them throughout their legal careers. We are extremely thankful of the kindness and generosity of the Legal Aid and Defender Association."
Heatstroke, dangerous pesticides, machinery accidents. These are just some of the threats to life and limb confronting California's farmworkers everyday, largely as a result of lax oversight by government regulators, say two California Rural Legal Assistance attorneys in a recent opinion piece published in the Los Angeles Times. The article highlights the problem with the story of a 17-year-old girl who died of heatstroke in May while pruning grapevines for more than nine hours in 95-degree heat. She had only limited access to shade and drinking water, a violation her employer was previously cited for, but never corrected. The agency that issued the citation never followed-up to ensure that changes had been made, and the young girl paid the price. "California must put money and effort into aggressive enforcement of strong regulations intended to protect farmworkers," concludes the piece. "The workers who provide us with our daily meals deserve better."
The Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York (LASNNY) has produced a professional video, "Legal Aid Matters," to promote the work of its program and highlight the importance of legal aid. The video features LASNNY Executive Director Lillian Moy, program staff, leaders in the local legal community, and clients, who all discuss the valuable services provided by the program and the challenge of providing justice to the poor with limited resources. While Moy foresees the video being useful for a variety of purposes, it is specifically targeted towards fundraising and pro bono recruitment efforts with the private bar.
The Management Information Exchange will host its 2008 National Conference for Legal Services Administrators in San Antonio Tex., from Sept. 18-19. The conference is designed for legal aid staff with fiscal, grant writing, contract and regulatory compliance, benefits administration, human resources, training, technology and general office management responsibilities. The conference will have sessions on legal writing, technology, disaster planning, risk management, leadership development, and more. Participants must register by August 25.
The LSC Resource Information (LRI) is an online clearinghouse of best practices, model projects, and other resources for LSC-funded programs.
Maine's Pine Tree Legal Assistance has developed an innovative intake system for screening its increasingly diverse client population. Faced with an influx of refugees from African and Eastern European countries, as well as a more diverse general population, Pine Tree relies on a multi-lingual voice mail program to handle intake for its largest field office in Portland. Callers are given the option of being greeted in English or eight other languages and can leave messages in mail boxes designated for each one. Intake staff members are automatically e-mailed when a message is left, allowing them to easily secure the correct interpreter to help return the call.
Legal aid is about helping ordinary people with real-life problems. Client stories illustrate the day-to-day struggles-and victories-of poor Americans seeking justice under law.
"Keith" had struggled with numerous mental impairments for years, including major depression and a personality disorder, which prevented him from holding down a job for any sustained period of time. He also suffered from a drug addiction that would periodically land him in prison, diminishing his employment prospects even further.
After being released from his most recent jail term, Keith was placed in a program where his compliance with mental health treatment, including drug rehabilitation, was closely monitored. But there was one problem: the program was not free, and Keith had no money and no chance of getting a job. His only hope was for the government to recognize his disability and grant him Supplemental Security Income benefits that could pay for his treatment and keep him off the street.
But there was a problem here too: to qualify for disability benefits, Keith had to prove to an administrative law judge that his drug addiction was not a contributing factor to his mental health problems, which was exactly what a government expert was going to argue.
"This is a recurring problem for our attorneys," said Mike Bulson of Utah Legal Services, who represented Keith at his hearing. "Essentially, we have to prove that the client would still be disabled regardless of their drug or alcohol problems."
At Keith's hearing, the government witness testified that Keith did meet all the criteria for receiving disability benefits, but that his drug addiction was a contributing factor, so he ultimately was not eligible to receive the benefits.
During Bulson's cross-examination, the expert admitted it was difficult to distinguish between symptoms caused by the mental impairments and those caused by the addiction. Bulson argued that because the effects of Keith's mental illness could not be completely separated from the effects of substance abuse, the abuse should not be found to be a contributing factor. The judge agreed and granted benefits, allowing Keith to remain in the program.