The housing bill approved by the Congress will bolster efforts by legal aid programs funded by the Legal Services Corporation to help low-income Americans worried that they may lose their homes through foreclosure.
The bill, the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008, provides $30 million for pre-foreclosure and legal counseling through a new grant program.
"Because of the enormous impact that the subprime mortgage crisis is having on the poor, particularly the elderly on fixed incomes and low-income renters, legal assistance is a crucial and necessary component in the effort to address the crisis," Helaine M. Barnett, president of LSC, said.
"Foreclosure cases are complex and time consuming, and legal aid attorneys funded by LSC often are the only resort for low-income individuals and families. We expect requests for legal assistance to continue to grow, and, without additional funding, our programs will be unable to meet that demand."
Note: President Bush signed the housing bill into law on July 30.
LSC has released its Fact Book for 2007, a comprehensive collection of selected statistics that provides a national snapshot of the resources available to and the services provided by LSC-funded programs throughout the country. This annual compilation provides actual data-no extrapolations or estimates-collected primarily from Grant Activity Reports submitted to the Corporation by its grantees and analyzed by LSC's Office of Information Management. The Fact Book also contains selected historical data from the Corporation's nearly 35-year history. The document is a useful reference for the LSC community and can be used in presenting and explaining to those outside the community what LSC-funded legal aid programs do for low-income Americans in need of civil legal assistance.
The Board of Directors of the Legal Services Corporation will meet in Wilmington, Delaware, on Aug. 1 and Aug. 2. Members of the news media and the public may attend open sessions on those days, as space permits. The board will visit the Legal Services Corporation of Delaware and convene meetings of its audit, finance, performance review, provision for the delivery of legal services, and operations and regulations committees. Justice Randy J. Holland of the Delaware Supreme Court will speak at the board's lunch on Aug. 1.
The Boards of Directors of the Legal Services Corporation of Delaware and the Capital Area Legal Services Corporation of Baton Rouge, La., 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."
More than 5,000 poor residents of Alameda County, Calif., will continue to receive critical public benefits thanks to Bay Area Legal Aid, the San Francisco-based law firm of Heller Ehrman, and the Oakland-based Public Interest Law Project. On July 22, the Alameda County Superior Court ruled that the county's plan to terminate General Assistance benefits for more than half of all recipients was unlawfully based on an unreasonable definition of "employable." The county sought to define the term as encompassing anyone who was able-bodied and mentally competent. Bay Area Legal Aid's Steven Weiss joined the other groups in filing a lawsuit arguing that the county's new definition did not consider factors like lack of education and job skills, literacy and fluency in English, and whether jobs actually existed. The court ordered the county to comply with its duty to define the term "fairly and equitably based on practical employability factors."
South Brooklyn Legal Services (SBLS), a division of the LSC-funded Legal Services NYC, has forced New York City to agree to provide adequate compensation to 40 families if it uses eminent domain to evict them from their rent-controlled apartments as part of a redevelopment scheme. The families occupy three historic buildings the city has targeted for demolition to make way for office and retail space, a parking garage, and a park. Jennifer Levy of SBLS and a private attorney filed suit against the city challenging its use of eminent domain without a relocation plan for the tenants. The city agreed to settle the case, offering the tenants relocation benefits and protections including public housing subsidies and preference in city-supervised affordable housing developments. "The terms of the settlement [address] all of our concerns," said Levy.
Cy pres. In Norman French it means "as near as possible." In legalese it means that unclaimed class action funds should be used consistent with the settlement's original intent. For the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland it means cash: $450,368.09 to be exact. Last week, the Society was one of 34 charitable organizations to benefit from an unprecedented $14 million cy pres award arranged by the law firm of Dworken and Bernstein, which had secured a $51 million settlement in a class action suit against a major insurance company. "The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland is thrilled," said Melanie Shakarian, Director of Development for the program. Dworken and Bernstein is the founder of Ohio Lawyers Give Back, an organization dedicated to promoting the use of cy pres, which is not mandatory. Historically, large portions of class action settlement funds go unclaimed and are returned to the defendants. The organization seeks to raise awareness of the principle's power to make a positive difference in communities.
The Southwest Virginia Legal Aid Society has announced that it will begin offering foreclosure counseling services to low-income homeowners in its largely rural 21-county service area. Much like the rest of the country, Virginia is experiencing a foreclosure crisis of staggering proportions. According to RealtyTrac, which compiles nationwide foreclosure statistics, the state saw a 456 percent increase in 2007. Larry Harley, executive director of the Legal Aid Society, told the Southwest Virginia Today that, "All of Virginia's rural areas are identified as in crisis. This is a crisis that won't go away quickly." Foreclosure counselors will help homeowners understand the timeline of the foreclosure process, explain the options for avoiding or managing the fallout of a foreclosure, provide budgeting assistance, and more. Attorneys are also available to help clients fight predatory lending practices or seek bankruptcy protection. "More and more working people are trying to reach out and grab that American dream," Harley said, "and we're trying to prevent them from losing that first house."
Texas RioGrande Legal Aid is launching efforts to provide legal assistance to victims of Hurricane Dolly, a category two storm that wreaked havoc in nearly 15 counties in southeastern Texas. TRLA's Disaster Assistance team, led by attorney Tracy Figueroa, is helping organize local lawyers to help victims appeal denials of insurance claims, resolve problems with landlords or mortgage companies, and obtain disaster-related public benefits. "There are numerous ways in which disaster victims can be taken advantage of and denied their rights in the aftermath of the hurricane," said Figueroa. "It is important that people know that they do not have to be victimized twice. TRLA can help them navigate through their legal issues so that they can receive the support needed to rebuild their lives."
The Kansas City-based Legal Aid of Western Missouri has selected Gregg Lombardi as its new executive director, replacing Richard Halliburton who retired this February after 20 years at the helm of the organization. Lombardi has been the program's deputy executive director for the last seven years, during which time he has excelled at forming partnerships with law firms and community organizations to make a real difference in the lives of the poor. He has, for example, recruited lawyers from the law firm of Bryan Cave to donate over 1,000 hours of work on lawsuits to convert abandoned inner-city homes into owner-occupied housing. "Legal Aid is an excellent organization with a tremendously committed staff," said Lombardi. "We have a wonderful heritage of serving the basic needs of thousands of low-income people every year and, in doing so, strengthening the communities in which they live. I'm looking forward to working with our staff and our community partners to build on this heritage."
The Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands has received a $10,000 grant from the charitable arm of the state bar association to support the Legal Aid Society's series of legal clinics held in senior citizen centers throughout the Nashville area. The clinics are hosted by the Society's Nashville Pro Bono Program and are staffed by volunteer lawyers from corporate legal departments and private law firms. Legal Aid staff are also on hand to provide assistance. The clinics deal primarily with wills and durable powers of attorney, but participants can also participate in a "legal check-up" to identify potential legal problems involving housing, social security, denial of public benefits or access to health care.
Legal Aid of West Virginia held its Fourth Annual Friend-Raiser on July 22, a social networking event designed to introduce law students, law clerks, and young lawyers to Legal Aid and the rest of the legal community. "We believe it's really important to engrain in them the belief of giving back to Legal Aid," said Jennifer Jordan, director of development for the program. "When they reach the point in their careers that they are able to write checks to charity, they need to give to Legal Aid." This year's event featured presentations by former legal aid clients, former interns at the program, and Joyce McConnell, dean of the West Virginia University College of Law. McConnell spoke of the state's legal community as a team that must work together to provide legal services to vulnerable people. She highlighted the three ways that lawyers could support Legal Aid: working at the program, doing pro bono work, and donating to Legal Aid of West Virginia's fundraising campaign.
On August 1, the Legal Services National Technology Assistance Project, or NTAP, is hosting a free training session on using Microsoft's Excel spreadsheet program in a poverty law setting. The session will highlight beginning and intermediate tips and is recommended for legal aid advocates, managers, and directors. Participants can access the session via the LegalMeetings Web Conferencing system, which simply requires access to the internet and a phone line. One does not need to be tech-savvy to participate, according to NTAP.
The LSC Resource Information (LRI) is an online clearinghouse of best practices, model projects, and other resources for LSC-funded programs.
Legal Services of Southern Missouri has developed a disaster preparedness plan utilizing modern technology to keep the organization fully-functional during and after a crisis. The program has relocated all of its computer servers to an underground complex that protects against any natural disaster, providing a near-100 percent guarantee of internet and network access for staff. The program has also instituted an entirely paperless filing system to ensure that staff and volunteer attorneys have full access to vital client information at all times. The program also has a video conferencing system in place to allow staff in different offices to communicate with each other and with the program's Board of Directors.
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.
"Julia" can still remember hiding in her bedroom with her four children huddled at her side, wincing at the loud crashes and waiting for her husband's fury to pass. A crystal meth addict, his violent rages often erupted without warning and anything in sight was a potential victim-even their one-year-old baby.
"I begged the kids to stay quiet at all costs," Julia recalled. "If one of them cried, it would give him a reason to turn his anger toward them. I was terrified every day for the safety of my children."
Things were not always this way in Julia's family. When she married her husband, he promised to honor her and love her children as though they were his own. When she was pregnant with her fourth child, the first from their marriage, he told her he couldn't wait to be a father. That was before he began a rampant relationship with crystal meth.
"He started spending all of our money on drugs. I couldn't feed the kids. If he caught me scraping together change to buy formula for the baby, he would beat me and berate me for being selfish. When I tried to get a job, he threatened to hurt the children while I was gone. I don't ever remember feeling so helpless."
The last straw came for Julia when her husband pushed their baby down during one of his rages. Scared and alone, but determined to protect her children, she sought the help of Bay Area Legal Services. Bay Area first helped Julia get an injunction for protection, and then filed the divorce on her behalf. Throughout the divorce, her husband repeatedly begged for them to reconcile, but with the help of Bay Area and counseling from a victim support organization, Julia stood her ground. Once she was awarded sole custody of their child, Julia was able to begin rebuilding her life. She and her four children now live in a peaceful home free of rage and violence.
"I never thought I would need Bay Area's help, but I will be eternally grateful that they were there when I did," Julia said. "I don't even want to imagine where my life would be right now without them. Statistics about the number of domestic violence victims in the Bay Area are grim, and my heart breaks to think that so many are suffering the same way I did. I know I am one of the lucky ones."