The new Congress in Washington has brought changes to the leadership of key committees responsible for funding and overseeing the operations of the Legal Services Corporation.
In the Senate, the long-time Democratic leader of the Appropriations Committee, Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, has been replaced by Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii. The 91-year-old Byrd announced in December that he would step down from the position in the 111th Congress due to health concerns. Inouye, who received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his service in World War II, was first elected to Congress in 1962, making him the first Japanese-American ever elected to the body and one of its longest-serving members. Senator Thad Cochran from Mississippi continues to serve as the Committee's Ranking Republican. New members have not been chosen for the appropriations subcommittee responsible for funding LSC. Currently, that panel is led by Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Ranking Republican Richard Shelby of Alabama.
In the House, Frank R. Wolf of Virginia has returned to serve as the Ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, which is responsible for funding LSC. Wolf, who chaired the subcommittee from 2001 through 2006, replaces Rodney P. Frelinghuysen from New Jersey. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia will continue to serve as Chairman of the subcommittee. Joining him on the Democratic side will be Jos Serrano of New York, who returns to the panel after serving as its Ranking Member from 1999 through 2004.
The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law, which is responsible for conducting oversight of LSC, also has new leadership. Steve Cohen of Tennessee has replaced California Congresswoman Linda Sanchez as Chairman of the subcommittee. On the Republican side, Trent Franks of Arizona has replaced Chris Cannon of Utah as Ranking Member. Before his election to Congress in 2002, Franks had served as the Director of the Arizona Governor's Office for Children, a cabinet-level post that put him in charge of all the state's programs for children.
The stimulus bill enacted on Feb. 17 does not include funding for legal assistance to victims of the foreclosure crisis, despite efforts by a bipartisan group of senators to provide for it. Senator Robert P. Casey, Jr. (D-Pa.), introduced an amendment on Feb. 5 to add $30 million in the form of grants to legal organizations-including LSC- and non-LSC-funded programs-to provide legal assistance to homeowners or tenants faced with the loss of their home due to foreclosure. Fellow Pennsylvanian Senator Arlen Specter, a Republican, joined Casey in sponsoring the measure along with eight other Democratic Senators. The amendment was never voted on.
The Institute for Foreclosure Legal Assistance has awarded a total of $2.4 million in grants to nine legal aid programs, five of which are LSC grantees.
Iowa Legal Aid, Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, Legal Services of South Central Michigan, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and the Homeowner Defense Project of Legal Services NYC's Staten Island branch each received grants of $250,000 to $300,000, to be distributed over a three-year period. The money will be used by the grantees to hire additional attorneys specializing in foreclosure prevention. Last year, the Institute awarded $6.5 million to 27 legal aid groups, many of which were LSC-funded programs. The Institute is a project of the Center for Responsible Lending and is managed by the National Association of Consumer Advocates (NACA).
"Legal service attorneys are playing an essential and insufficiently recognized role in fighting against our nation's terrible foreclosure plague," said NACA executive director Ira Rheingold. "I'm sorry we can't fund more programs and hope Congress and the Administration will allocate the money necessary so more families across our country can receive the help only legal service attorneys can provide."
LSC President Helaine M. Barnett attended the meeting of the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants (SCLAID) on Feb. 14. Barnett reported to the committee members on recent developments at LSC including plans to update LSC's Justice Gap Report, the Corporation's role in helping grantees address the foreclosure crisis, and the formation of advisory groups on fiscal operations and private attorney involvement with LSC-funded programs. She also reported that LSC's Board of Directors renamed LSC's Loan Repayment Assistance Program in honor of Herbert S. Garten, a member of the board, for his long-standing dedication to the program. Garten was in attendance at the meeting as an advisor to the committee. The SCLAID committee is the group within the ABA responsible for examining issues related to the delivery of civil legal services to the poor. The American Bar Association includes increased funding for the Legal Services Corporation among its highest priorities. The meeting was held as part of the ABA's Mid-Year meeting in Boston.
The new issue of the Wyoming State Bar's Wyoming Lawyer magazine features a series of articles on access to justice in the state. In the magazine, LSC President Helaine M. Barnett writes about the importance of program quality in ensuring that civil legal aid makes a difference in the lives of those who need it. In her article, "The Importance of Quality in Legal Aid," Barnett recognizes the state's Supreme Court, bar association and legal community for working together to create an Access to Justice Commission dedicated to ensuring that the poor have equal access to justice. She discusses LSC's Quality Initiative, a multi-pronged effort to enhance the quality of services delivered by LSC's grantees, and lists key qualities possessed by a high-quality legal aid program. She also highlights the role of effective use of technology and the importance of an active private attorney involvement program in ensuring high-quality services.
The Board of Directors of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services has adopted a resolution aimed at increasing the involvement of private attorneys in the delivery of legal services to the program's clients, bringing to 100 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."
Funding for legal aid programs is in jeopardy across the nation. Recent issues of LSC Updates have contained articles summarizing news from programs that report they are considering layoffs, office closures, reductions in employee benefits or other drastic measures to cope with the shortfalls (see below for links to previous coverage). The causes are varied-drastically declining revenue from Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts, state governments reducing funding to offset budget shortfalls, charitable giving evaporating as the economy slumps-but the result is the same: funding shortages are forcing programs to turn away more and more eligible clients just as more and more people need their help.
The latest reports come from North Carolina and Texas, where the outlook for legal aid is bleak. The Raleigh News and Observer reports that Legal Aid of North Carolina is coping with steadily shrinking funding from state and private sources, just as they are seeing an increase in requests for help with unemployment insurance appeals, foreclosures, and creditors seeking to collect. George Hausen, executive director of the program, said he has cut 20 part-time lawyers who operate the program's legal advice hotline, and has frozen contributions to employees' retirement funds. "I'm dying from a thousand cuts," said Hausen in the article. The state's voluntary bar association has responded to the funding crisis by awarding the program a one-time unrestricted grant of $100,000. In announcing the unprecedented gift, bar president Charles Becton also urged lawyers throughout the state to increase their donations of "time and talent" to the state's needy.
In Texas, the Austin Business Journal reports that representatives from the Texas Access to Justice Commission, Texas Access to Justice Foundation and the Texas Supreme Court held a press conference at the state Capitol building on Feb. 18 to draw attention to the looming crisis in the state. The combination of cuts in IOLTA funding, recent natural disasters and a widespread rise in poverty have created a $37 million shortfall for legal aid in the next two years. "That is a real crisis. That is not fabricated. That is not manufactured. That's reality," said James B. Sales, chairman of the Access to Justice Commission, in an Associated Press article. The groups are asking the state legislature to step in and provide funding to cover the shortfall.
For previous LSC Updates coverage of the nationwide legal aid funding crisis, read:
Julie Clutter and Katie Laskey-Donovan are in a unique position to witness the plight of America's working poor. The two lawyers who constitute the Wage Project at the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland see a steady stream of laid-off, low-wage, or marginally employed workers who-as victims of unscrupulous employers or simply as newcomers to the job market-need help understanding and fighting for their rights.
The Wage Project started as a pilot program in 2007 and was fully implemented in 2008. It seeks to educate workers about their rights, advocate for policies that remove barriers to employment and provide direct representation to clients with wage and hour issues. Immigrant communities are a specific focus of the project, as recent arrivals to the country are often less knowledgeable about their rights and less likely-as a result of language barriers or other reasons-to assert them.
"We're already seeing a lot of laid-off workers who haven't received their last few paychecks and minimum wage employees who've been cheated out of overtime," says Clutter. "As the economy continues to worsen and companies look to save money wherever possible-even at the expense of workers who need money more than ever-we expect to see an increase in cases like this."
One of the project's recent successes involved a former airport employee who, thanks to Laskey-Donovan, was able to recover more than $2,000 in union fees that were wrongfully deducted from his paychecks over the course of four years.
"These are the types of cases the private bar won't take," says Laskey-Donovan. "Some of the dollar amounts we're talking about are small for a law firm, but they're huge for our clients, especially in this economy."
A judge in Puerto Rico has ordered the island's government to give $375,000 to Puerto Rico Legal Services to fund the program's representation of children with special education needs. The money, to be distributed over two years, comes from court-imposed fines on Puerto Rico's Department of Education for failing to create an adequate program to provide for the students. Puerto Rico Legal Services will use the money to hire additional lawyers and staff to increase the work it is already doing in the area-representing students to ensure they receive the educational services they need. During court proceedings, the judge in the case noted that lack of access to legal aid could curb some families' rights to see that their sons and daughters receive an adequate education. Charles Hey-Maestre, executive director of the legal services program, applauded the judge's decision, saying it was a sensitive response to the dire situation facing special needs students and their parents on a daily basis.
Indiana Legal Services and the Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio (an affiliate program of the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati) are sponsoring a two-day mortgage foreclosure training program in Indianapolis on March 5 and 6. Representatives from the National Consumer Law Center will serve as trainers for the event, which has also received financial and logistical support from the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority, the Institute for Foreclosure Legal Assistance and the Indiana Supreme Court. The first day of training is limited to legal aid lawyers and paralegals and members of the National Association of Consumer Advocates. The second day of training is open to attorneys and housing counselors seeking to prevent foreclosure.
To register for either training session, visit www.indianajustice.org.
Glenn Rawdon and Bristow Hardin from LSC's Office of Program Performance will join presenters from the Legal Services National Technology Assistance Project (LSNTAP) and Legal Services NYC for a free online training session on LSC's technology baseline report, "Technologies That Should Be in Place in a Legal Aid Office Today." The training session, hosted by LSNTAP, will provide an overview of the technology planning process and review key components of a successful technology plan, including how to assess the technical capabilities of staff and determine program needs. The session is recommended for executive directors, managers and system administrators. It will be held on Wednesday, February 25.
The Center for Access to Justice and Technology at the Chicago-Kent College of Law in Illinois is hosting two free online training sessions for users of the "A2J Author" program. The software, who's name stands for "Access to Justice," allows legal aid lawyers and other advocates to create guided online interviews that self-represented litigants can use to fill out and file court forms. The first training, on February 27, is designed for new users of the program and will cover the basics of how it interacts with HotDocs, a document assembly program. The second training, on March 6, is for advanced users and will cover field types, variable types, advanced question design.
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.
Joseph Hardgrave is the Montana Legal Services Association's "Road Warrior." As an Equal Justice Works Fellow running the program's Indian Wills Project, Hardgrave often finds himself traveling to the state's Native American reservations drafting wills for people whose property would otherwise be sold to the highest bidder upon their death. The latest issue of the program's newsletter features this story from Hardgrave about his recent trip to the Crow Reservation in south central Montana.
This afternoon I wrote a will for a woman on her deathbed. I had never experienced a more intimate setting. She was a Crow with five children and eleven grandchildren; most of them were there in the tiny transitional hospital room when I arrived. One of her daughters had called me an hour before and she said it was an emergency. The woman was dying from a severe from of lung cancer and the doctors had stopped her treatment. The woman was calm and aware and she seemed happy to have her family around her.
I had my laptop and portable printer with me. I set them up and the daughter handed me an inventory report from the Bureau of Indian Affairs that listed all of the woman's interests in trust land. Under the testator's direction, I went through her property, dividing specific allotments to each of the grandchildren and then dividing all of the remaining property to all of her five children in equal shares. It took a few hours to work through all of the allotments and to identify them in the will. At various times, some of the children talked in Crow. There were a few tense discussions on how to best divide some of the allotments and then there was plenty of laughter.
After the will was drafted, the daughter tried to hand me some money. I told her that I couldn't accept it. One of the sons gave me a bottle of water and the testatrix herself whispered "thank you" to me as I left the room.
I can't imagine what it would be like to be in the twilight of your life and to worry about how your land is going to pass and with no one to help you out. I realized that to these clients, this land that has been in their families for hundreds of years meant so much more to them than dollars and cents.
The February 5 issue of LSC Updates incorrectly reported that LSC's Board of Directors voted, at its January meeting in Washington, D.C., to rename LSC's Pilot Loan Repayment Assistance Program as the Herbert S. Garten Pilot Loan Repayment Assistance Program. In fact, the Board's name change removed the term "Pilot."