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LSC Updates - February 20, 2008

House Approves Debt Relief for Civil Legal Aid Lawyers

On February 7, the U.S. House of Representatives approved Senator Tom Harkin's, D-IA, loan repayment assistance amendment for civil legal aid lawyers. The amendment was included as section 426 of the College Opportunity and Affordability Act (H.R. 4137), which passed the House by a vote of 354 to 58.

Senator Harkin's amendment would require the U.S. Department of Education to provide loan repayments of up to $6,000 a year-$40,000 for a lifetime-to full-time civil legal aid lawyers who agree to remain employed as such for no less than three years. Payments would be awarded on a first-come first-served basis, subject to the availability of appropriations, with priority given to attorneys with less than five years of employment. The bill authorizes $10 million for the program in FY 2009.

Harkin introduced the program as a separate bill (S. 1167) in April 2007. Senator Richard Durbin, D-Ill., attached Harkin's bill as a secondary amendment to the Higher Education Amendments Act (S. 1642), which passed the Senate that month.

Though both houses of Congress have approved Harkin's amendment, they will have to reconcile the two bills before sending a version to President Bush for final approval.

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LSC Appoints New Inspector General

On February 7, LSC's Board of Directors announced the appointment of Jeffrey E. Schanz as the Corporation's Inspector General, effective March 3, 2008.

Schanz comes to LSC from the U.S. Department of Justice, where he served for the last 17 years as Director of the Office of Policy and Planning, Audit Division, Office of the Inspector General. Schanz's duties covered the full spectrum of administrative services for the 176-person Audit Division including budget formulation and execution, development of national and regional training plans, management of a paperless management information system with an audit follow-up component, preparation of semi-annual reports to Congress, and advising the Department on legislation that might impact the IG community.

Schanz replaces Richard "Kirt" West who left LSC last fall for a position in the private sector. Ronald "Dutch" Merryman has been acting Inspector General in the interim.

Click here for the full announcement.

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LSC President Speaks at California Project Directors, ABA SCLAID Meetings

On February 8, LSC President Helaine M. Barnett spoke at a meeting of the California Project Directors Association, a group that includes leaders from all eleven LSC-funded legal services programs in the state. Barnett welcomed two new members of the group, Devon Lomayesva of California Indian Legal Services, and Mario Salgado of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. Karen J. Sarjeant, LSC Vice President for Programs and Compliance, also attended the meeting.

Barnett recognized the California programs for working quickly and cooperatively to deliver services to those affected by the wildfires that raged through the state last October. She also acknowledged the successful efforts of the California programs to help low-income Californians apply for the Earned Income Tax Credit. She updated the attendees on recent developments at LSC, including LSC's FY 2008 appropriation and FY 2009 budget request, reports from the Government Accountability Office, and LSC's Quality Agenda, including the revised Performance Criteria and Case Service Reporting system, LSC's action plan to increase private attorney involvement, and LSC's effort to develop a strategic technology plan.

On February 9, Barnett also gave an update on LSC initiatives to the Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants at the American Bar Association's Mid-Year meeting in Los Angeles, Calif. LSC Board Chairman Frank B. Strickland also delivered remarks. LSC Board Member Herbert S. Garten attended the meeting as a special counsel to the committee.

On February 11, Barnett attended a meeting of the American Bar Association's House of Delegates, the ABA's policy making body, of which she is a member. Mary Schneider, Executive Director of the Legal Services of Northwest Minnesota Corporation, and Robert Racunas, Executive Director of Pennsylvania's Neighborhood Legal Services Association, are also members.

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Two More LSC-Funded Programs Adopt Pro Bono Resolutions

The Boards of Directors of two more LSC-funded programs have adopted resolutions aimed at increasing the involvement of private attorneys in the delivery of legal services to their clients, bringing to 78 the total number of programs who have adopted such resolutions. The two programs are:

  • Legal Aid Society of San Diego, Calif.
  • Merrimack Valley Legal Services, Mass.

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."

Click here for the list of LSC-funded programs that have adopted pro bono resolutions.

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Apply for Grants from the Pro Bono Institute's Second Acts Project

The Pro Bono Institute's (PBI) Second Acts Project (SM) has grants available to help legal services organizations develop pro bono projects that utilize the services of retired attorneys. A total of $160,000 in annual funding is available to eligible non-profit legal service or pro bono organizations. Organizations in the California counties of Santa Clara, San Mateo, and Santa Cruz are strongly encouraged to apply. The term of the first year of funding will run from August 1, 2008 through July 31, 2009. Applications are due by May 16, 2008.

PBI launched the Second Acts Project (SM) in 2005 to provide institutional support to retiring attorneys who contribute their time, skills, and expertise to help public interest organizations provide legal services to low-income Americans.

For assistance, contact Benjamin Bay, Project Assistance, at secondacts@probonoinst.org or (202) 662-4245.

Click here to download applications, and for more information about the project.

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Reminder: Participate in NALP's Salary Survey

The deadline to participate in the National Association for Law Placement's 2008 Public Interest Attorney Salary Survey is February 22. The survey collects salary and benefits data from public interest lawyers throughout the legal field, including attorneys general, civil legal services lawyers, local prosecutors, and public defenders. The findings will be presented in a report available this summer. Results will be presented in the aggregate, and no survey participant will be individually identified. Participants will receive a free electronic copy of the final report, and will be eligible to purchase hard copies at a reduced rate.

Click here to participate in the survey.

For more information, contact Steve Grumm, NALP's Director of Public Service Initiatives, at sgrumm@nalp.org or 202-296-0057.

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Field News

Nationwide Legal Aid Scammers Sued

On February 7, Colorado's attorney general filed suit on behalf of Colorado Legal Services and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA) against an organization alleged to have run a nationwide legal aid scam.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the suit, filed in the U.S. District Court of Colorado, claims that Legal Aid National Services operated fake legal aid organizations in 27 states and offered paralegal services in every state but Alaska. According to the complaint, the organization billed itself as a non-profit legal services organization, but in fact, would demand up-front fees for services that were inadequate or non-existent.

Cindy Dyar, attorney with TRLA, which has filed a separate suit in San Antonio on behalf of some victims of the scheme, said, "These companies have been taking advantage of people who are in desperate situations and cannot afford a private attorney. By claiming to be a legal aid organization, they have exploited vulnerable people during their time of need."

Click here to read, "Legal-aid firm swindled poor, suit alleges," in the Los Angeles Times.

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LSNY Lawyers Protect Right of Tenants to be Heard

Attorneys with South Brooklyn Legal Services (SBLS), a division of Legal Services for New York City (LSNY), have forced the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to change the way it evicts tenants from properties it owns.

Michael L. Weissberg, Jennifer Levy, and Nicole Salk of SBLS represented four tenants living in buildings acquired by HUD following a foreclosure. Three of the tenants were served with eviction notices. HUD rules do not require the agency to provide a reason when evicting tenants from foreclosed properties, and provides the tenants no means to challenge the eviction.

Judge Frederic Block of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, ruled that HUD's rule was "patently unconstitutional" and that tenants have the right to be heard in an administrative proceeding before an eviction could take place.

Click here to read, "HUD Eviction Rule Rejected As 'Patently Unconstitutional'" from the New York Law Journal.

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Arizona Legal Needs Study Released

The Arizona Foundation for Legal Services and Education has released a report, "Voicing the Need for Justice," on the legal needs of Arizonans.

The report, which contains findings from a telephone survey conducted by a professional data collection firm, shows that the majority of Arizonans-81 percent-do not know where to go for legal services when confronted with a civil legal problem. Overall, 32 percent of respondents reported having a civil legal problem during the last year. Of those, only 25 percent received help from a person or agency, 41 percent attempted to handle the problem themselves, and 21 percent took no action at all.

Over 71 percent of households with annual incomes less than $25,000 believe they can not afford a lawyer, while more than half of households with moderate incomes-$46,000 or less-also believe they can not afford a lawyer.

To obtain a copy of this report, please contact Kay Lapid at Kay.Lapid@azflse.org, or (602) 340-7260.

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Bay Area Legal Services Launches Children's Law Center

Florida's Bay Area Legal Services (BALS) has announced the launch of the L. David Shear Children's Law Center. The center is dedicated to securing permanent residency for young children in out-of-home care. Richard Woltmann, BALS Executive Director, said that getting children out of the foster care system and placed with permanent loving families is crucially important to their growth and development.

L. David Shear is a lifelong resident of Tampa, Fla., partner with the law firm of Ruden McClosky, and dedicated supporter of equal access to justice. Shear helped found, and now heads, the Bay Area Legal Services Development Council, which educates community leaders about the vital services provided by the program. He was one of the original supporters of Florida's Interest on Lawyers Trust Account program, and was elected in 2007 to be the American Bar Association's representative on the Board of Directors of the National Equal Justice Library.

Click here to read the full announcement from Bay Area Legal Services. (PDF icon 168k)

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TRLA Lawyers Admitted to U.S. Supreme Court

On February 20, six lawyers with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA) were admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court. They are: Julie M. Balovich, Kevin P. Dietz, Cheryl D. Gatford, Mandi Matlock, Carmen E. Rodriguez, and Brian Rogers.

William O. Whitehurst, former Chairman of the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants, former President of the State Bar of Texas, and co-founder of Bar Leaders for the Preservation of Legal Services to the Poor, is moving the admission of the group.

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IOLTA Funding Plummets as Interest Rates Drop

Interest on Lawyer Trust Account (IOLTA) programs in at least two states have projected serious funding shortages following a series of interest rate cuts by the Federal Reserve. Interest rates on IOLTA accounts mirror rates set by the Fed.

According to the Austin Business Journal, the Texas Access to Justice Foundation (TAJF), which distributes IOLTA funds to Texas legal services programs, expected to receive $25 to $28 million in IOLTA revenue before the rate cuts, and now only expects to receive $15 to $16 million.

"We have a legal aid delivery system that's starved," said TAJF Executive Director Betty Balli Torres. "We were just starting to see the light and now we are almost back to where we started."

In January, Legal Services of New Jersey (LSNJ), which distributes IOLTA funds in that state, announced a 20 percent decline in IOLTA collections for the month of December, following nine and six percent decreases in November and October, respectively. Federal interest rate cuts combined with a sluggish real estate market and a poor overall economy to create "a kind of terrible perfect storm' for our funding," said Melville D. Miller, Jr., president of LSNJ.

Click here to read "Legal aid services feeling the crunch of lowered interest rates," in the Austin Business Journal.

Click here to read, "IOLTA funding for legal services suffers major decline," from Legal Services of New Jersey.

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Wyoming Legal Services Helps Fulfill "A Critical Need"

Megan Lee, Casper Star-Tribune – February 9, 2008

The door is barely noticeable-plain brown with nothing to mark it as a business except for a makeshift "Wyoming Legal Services" sign on the wall above the mailbox.

Inside, the receptionist looks up as a small bell tied to the door handle rings, letting her know that someone has entered. Her desk, covered with applications and papers waiting to be filed, is pushed against the far wall to create a sort of entryway for clients and guests. She smiles, explaining to the woman on the phone that 2007 legal aid applications are no longer valid, and that she needs new paperwork before she can be helped.

Wyoming Legal Services gets its funding from Legal Services Corporation, a federal civil assistance program, and other federal grants as well as some money from the Wyoming Bar Association. By underpaying her employees and herself, obtaining cheaply-priced or donated used computer equipment, and cutting financial corners wherever possible, Executive Director Wendy Owens manages a small budget to help people with financial and legal needs.

Click here to read the article in its entirety.

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Success Story from Legal Services of Eastern Missouri

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.

Legal Aid Reunites Mother and Son Torn Apart by Hurricane Katrina

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in August 2005, "Collette" lost her house, and would have lost her son, "James," were it not for the critical intervention of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri.

Once the storm subsided and the extent of the devastation was clear, Collette and James packed up their meager belongings and went to live with relatives of Collette's boyfriend hundreds of miles away in Missouri. When that arrangement fell apart, Collette found herself completely homeless and without James, who was placed into Missouri's foster care program.

She moved back to New Orleans-the only place she could call home-to try to rebuild her house and regain custody of her son. Collette began making the arduous journey to and from St. Louis to attend custody hearings and to spend a few precious hours with James. At each hearing she was asked to report on the progress she had made to rebuild her home: a task which seemed almost impossible. She successfully applied for funds through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Road Home program, which provides grants to Katrina victims trying to rebuild their homes, but her money was delayed for months and months. Not content to wait, Collette began rebuilding the home with her bare hands, paying for materials with wages earned from a few part-time jobs.

When staff from Legal Services of Eastern Missouri's (LSEM) Family Court Project learned of James's and Collette's plight, they immediately swung into action, working to secure custody for Collette and to connect her with valuable services back in New Orleans.

LSEM put her in contact with a faith-based organization that organized volunteers who completely renovated and refurnished Collette's home, and connected her with mental health services for trauma survivors. Finally, in October 2007, despite numerous roadblocks, LSEM was able to convince the court that James belonged with his mother, and that New Orleans offered services that Missouri did not. The judge agreed, dismissed the case, and awarded full legal and physical custody to Collette.

Collette's story was originally featured in the winter 2008 issue of LSEM's "Justice" newsletter. Click here to download a copy. (PDF icon 728k)

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