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LSC Updates - December 22, 2010

LSC to Operate at FY10 Levels through Start of 2011

LSC will operate at current funding levels through the beginning of next year under a continuing resolution approved by Congress and signed into law by President Obama on Dec. 22.

The resolution, the Continuing Appropriations and Surface Transportation Extensions Act of 2011 (H.R. 3082), funds most federal programs, including LSC, at Fiscal Year 2010 levels through March 4, 2011-two months into the first session of the 112th Congress.

"This has been a challenging year for our legal aid programs in the field," said LSC President Victor M. Fortuno. "The crush of foreclosure, unemployment and other recession-related cases has overwhelmed our grantees. LSC will continue to stress the need for increased funding next year."

LSC has been operating at its FY 2010 funding level of $420 million since FY 2011 officially began on Oct. 1. Spending panels in both houses of Congress approved increases for LSC during the regular FY 2011 appropriations process but those increases were not acted on by the full chambers.

Earlier this month, the Senate Appropriations Committee released the text of an omnibus spending bill that included a $20 million increase for LSC and lifted the class-action restriction on LSC grantees, but the measure was never acted on.

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Congress Acts to Require FDIC Protection of IOLTA

Congress has passed a bill requiring the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to provide full insurance coverage to Interest on Lawyers' Trust Accounts (IOLTA), a major source of funding for legal aid programs nationwide.

The bill (H.R. 6398) extends the existing FDIC protection-set to expire Dec. 31-for an additional two years.

The Senate passed the bill Dec. 22 thanks to Sen. Jeff Merkley and a bipartisan group of supporters: Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.), Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and Tim Johnson (D-S.D.).

The House of Representatives approved the measure Nov. 30. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) sponsored the bill and spoke on the House floor about the importance of IOLTA.

"I saw firsthand the benefits of these programs in ensuring access to justice for those who otherwise might be unable to secure justice," said Rep. Doggett, a former justice of the Supreme Court of Texas. "Some of those who need legal assistance the most-veterans who have served honorably, domestic violence victims, and persons with disabilities-are too often the least able to obtain it."

Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) spoke in support of the bill and summed up the danger of allowing the FDIC coverage to expire.

"If the current guarantee were allowed to lapse," she said, "attorneys in the 37 States with IOLTA mandates, acting in accordance with their fiduciary duties to maintain the security of the client funds, might be forced to transfer IOLTA accounts from local community banks to larger, safer institutions, and attorneys in the other jurisdictions might be forced to transfer funds from IOLTA accounts to non-interest-bearing accounts to qualify for unlimited FDIC coverage. If the coverage for these accounts is not extended, a critical source of civil legal aid might unnecessarily and inappropriately shrink."

The efforts of the American Bar Association were instrumental to the passage of this bill.

Click here to download the full statements of Reps. Doggett and Biggert. (PDF icon 149k)

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LSC Awards New Round of Technology Grants

LSC has awarded technology grants to make it easier for veterans to seek disability benefits, for the public to obtain legal information via mobile phone applications, and for Spanish-speaking persons to apply for civil legal assistance, LSC President Victor M. Fortuno announced on Dec. 8.

The projects are part of 30 grants to expand and enhance access to civil legal services that were recently made through LSC's Technology Initiative Grants (TIG) program. Other grants are pending, and when all are completed, about $3.3 million will be awarded to nonprofit legal aid providers in 25 states.

"Our nation faces a crisis in legal representation, and TIG is a continuing effort at LSC to better harness technology to expand and enhance access to legal services. Self-help guides and videos and legal information help people navigate the legal system and achieve fair treatment," said Fortuno.

Continue reading.

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Register for LSC's 2011 Technology Initiative Grants Conference

Register to attend LSC's 2011 Technology Initiative Grants (TIG) Conference in Albuquerque, N.M., from January 12-14.

LSC's annual TIG Conference brings together techies and legal professionals to learn about the latest trends, products and strategies for using technology to deliver legal services to the poor.

The hot topics to be covered at this year's conference include social media, cloud computing, information security, litigation technology and online document assembly. The conference also features important sessions on reporting and evaluation requirements for recipients of TIG grants.

There will be a HotDocs training session for the LawHelp Interactive community on Jan. 10 and 11.

For more information, read the full announcement on LSC's TIG website or download the preliminary conference agenda (PDF icon 15k). Click here to register.

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Former LSC Board Member Esquer Dies

Cecilia D. Esquer, a former LSC Board member and long-time Hispanic-rights activist, passed away Dec. 4 at the age of 68.

Esquer was appointed to the LSC Board by President Carter in the late 1970s and served with members including Hillary Rodham Clinton and F. William McCalpin.

Prior to her service, Esquer taught Spanish at an Arizona high school, where her advocacy for minority students transformed her into a passionate activist, according to a recent news article. Her activism led her to seek a law degree, which she earned from Arizona State University in 1976.

Her career included teaching at Arizona State University and Phoenix College and working for the state attorney general. She published a book about her life in October of this year.

"Many knew Cecilia as a skillful lawyer and dedicated advocate, but my family was lucky in knowing her as an inspiring friend," says Gloria Valencia-Weber, a current member of the LSC Board. "Cecilia earned respect and gratitude for her lifelong commitment to securing equality and rights for everyone, with notable success in empowering Hispanics, Native Americans and women."

A memorial service was held for Esquer on Dec. 11, which included eulogies from former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard and Christine Marin, a former colleague at Arizona State University.

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Field News

New York Chief Judge Seeks $100 million for Civil Legal Aid

Request Follows Release of Report by Legal Aid Task Force

New York state's chief judge is seeking $100 million over four years for civil legal aid programs as part of the judiciary's budget request for the 2011-2012 fiscal year, according to a Nov. 28 article in the New York Times and a Dec. 1 press release from the state court system.

"The court system's budget request embodies the judiciary's commitment to ensuring that New York State meets the crucial civil legal assistance needs of its low-income citizens," said Judge Lippman. "Indeed, no issue is more fundamental to the constitutional mission of the courts than providing equal justice for all."

The request follows the release of a report (PDF icon 6mb) from Judge Lippman's Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services, chaired by former LSC President Helaine M. Barnett. The task force's key finding is that the large number of unrepresented litigants in civil cases adversely impacts the quality of justice for all parties in the courts, increases the amount of litigation, and undermines the rule of law.

"Providing civil legal assistance reduces the cost of litigation, increases court efficiency, saves taxpayers millions of dollars and provides help to the most vulnerable New Yorkers when faced with legal problems involving the ´essentials of life,'" said Barnett in the court's press release.

The New York Times on Dec. 19 ran an editorial in support of Lippman's efforts, citing findings from the task force report.

Click here for more information.

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IOLTA Reserve Funds Dwindling in North Carolina

For the second year in a row, lagging revenue levels have forced the administrators of North Carolina's IOLTA program to tap their reserve funds in order to keep grant-making steady.

As reported by North Carolina Lawyers Weekly, Board members of the Interest on Lawyers' Trust Accounts program withdrew $1 million from the reserve fund earlier this month, leaving the fund with $700,000-down from $2.7 million in 2009. That year, the IOLTA program generated 55 percent less revenue than in 2008 and grants were cut by 20 percent.

Despite the use of the reserve funds, grants will still be cut this year, but only by about 10 percent.

George Hausen, executive director of Legal Aid of North Carolina, is glad the reserve funds were tapped. "As bad as it is, it could be worse," he says in the article.

Click here for the full story.

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New Report on State of Legal Aid in Chicago Area

The Chicago Bar Foundation and The Chicago Community Trust released a report on Dec. 16 outlining the state of the legal aid and pro bono system in the Chicago area.

The report, "Legal Aid in Cook County: A Report on Basic Trends in Need, Service and Funding," notes that legal aid funding has increased from most sources in recent years, but that progress has been tempered by skyrocketing demand for services.

"Thousands upon thousands of low-income people in our community continue to grapple with often complex legal problems on their own, without the assistance of a lawyer," said Steve Patton, president of the Chicago Bar Foundation, "We simply have to do more."

For more information, download the press release (PDF icon 64k) or the complete report (PDF icon 2mb).

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Los Angeles: Lawsuit Alleges Illegal Use of "Legal Aid" Name

Two Los Angeles-area legal aid programs are suing a local business owner for alleged illegal use of terms like "legal aid" to conduct business and attract clients, mostly poor and low-income individuals, according to a Dec. 9 press release from the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) and Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County (NLSLA).

The programs are seeking to enforce a year-old California law that restricts the use of names like "Legal Aid" exclusively to nonprofit organizations providing free civil legal services to the poor. The law allows legitimate legal aid programs to sue to stop the misuse of the name, according to the release.

Toby Rothschild, general counsel of LAFLA, said, "The California legislature attempted to solve a serious problem for low-income consumers of legal services by making clear that the term ´legal aid' in California means providing legal services to the poor free of charge."

Neal S. Dudovitz, executive director of NLSLA, said, "We continually have clients come to us for help after a phony legal aid has taken their money, provided inaccurate information, and not delivered any substantive legal services." He added, "They create great distrust in the community for true legal services organizations."

Read the full press release.

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NPR Reports on Enforcement of Olmstead Ruling

Landmark Decision Dubbed "Brown v. Board" for the Disabled

National Public Radio is running an investigative series on efforts to enforce the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling in the 1999 case of Olmstead v. L.C., which gave disabled individuals the right to access disability services in community-based settings, rather than institutions.

The case, often referred to as the Brown v. Board for the disabled, was brought to the Supreme Court by the Atlanta Legal Aid Society on behalf of two clients who sought to transfer from a state hospital to a group home while continuing to receive state-funded care.

One of those clients, Lois Curtis, whose initials appear in the name of the case, is profiled as part of the NPR series. Sue Jamieson, the Atlanta Legal Aid attorney who took the case to the Supreme Court, is also featured in one of the articles.

Click here for the full series.

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Ex-CFO of Maryland Legal Aid Sentenced to 30 Months in Prison

The former chief of finance for Maryland's Legal Aid Bureau was sentenced in U.S. District Court on Dec. 14 to 30 months in prison for embezzling more than $1 million from the Legal Aid Bureau.

Benjamin Louis King, age 58, who held his position at the legal aid program from 1978 to 2008, was also sentenced to three years of supervised release following his prison time and ordered to pay restitution of more than $1 million.

Judge Catherine C. Blake, who imposed the sentence, said it was meant to deter others from similar schemes, according to the Maryland Daily Record. King's scheme involved overcharging the Legal Aid Bureau for office supplies with the help of an accomplice and pocketing the proceeds.

LSC's Office of Inspector General and the FBI conducted the joint investigation that led to the conviction of King and his accomplice.

Click here for more information.

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Former American Samoa Legal Aid Workers Charged with Fraud

Two former employees of a now-defunct legal aid program in American Samoa, the U'una'i Legal Services Corporation, have been indicted in connection with the theft of $150,000 in federal grant funds from the organization, according to a Dec. 17 press release from the Department of Justice.

The indictment alleges that the two employees and the organization's former executive director diverted approximately $150,000 in grant funds from the Legal Services Corporation and the DOJ's Office of Violence Against Women to themselves and others.

Charges listed in the indictment include conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, theft of federal funds and false statements and falsification of records in a federal investigation.

The program's former executive director pleaded guilty in March to stealing funds from the organization and is awaiting sentencing.

Click here for more information.

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Success Story from Legal Services of Northwest Minnesota

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.

Rent Increases Blocked for Low-Income Tenants

Two legal aid clients and hundreds of other low-income families will not face increased rents on their public housing units thanks to Legal Services of Northwest Minnesota.

As reported by a local TV news station, a county housing authority passed regulations in October that imposed an across-the-board rent increase for all public housing tenants and charged smaller families more for bigger units.

"They changed it so that two people could really only qualify for a one bedroom unit regardless of the makeup of that household," said Sherry Bruckner, the legal services attorney who represented the two clients. "That didn't work for families where a grandson and a grandparent or a brother and sister were living together."

The new regulations definitely didn't work for two tenants, who took the housing authority to court in October with Bruckner's help. Earlier this month, the housing authority agreed to cancel the across-the-board rent increases and allowed the two clients to remain in their current unit.

This was not a case of "good v. evil" stressed Buckner, noting the importance of the housing authority to many families.

"I would say all people who have section eight housing are so grateful for having it because that means that they'll have safe and decent and affordable housing," she said.

For more information, read "Two Tenants Sue County, Keep Rent Lower for Hundreds," from KSAX.com.

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Created by Congress in 1974, LSC’s mission is to promote equal access to justice in our Nation and to provide high quality civil legal assistance to low-income persons. LSC Updates is produced by LSC’s Office of Government Relations & Public Affairs. Questions, comments, or articles can be submitted to Sean Driscoll, Special Assistant, at driscolls@lsc.gov.