LSC Updates - March 29, 2007
On March 29, 2007, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies held a hearing on LSC's budget request for fiscal year (FY) 2008.
LSC President Helaine M. Barnett and LSC Chairman Frank B. Strickland
LSC has requested $430.7 million for FY 2008, an $82 million increase from FY 2007. LSC Chairman Frank B. Strickland and LSC President Helaine M. Barnett testified before the Subcommittee, arguing that the increase was necessary in light of the findings of LSC's groundbreaking report, Documenting the Justice Gap in America: The Current Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-Income Americans. The report documents that 50% of people seeking help from LSC-funded programs--and are eligible to receive it--are turned away, simply due to lack of resources.
"LSC's Board believes the justice gap is unacceptable...and we hope that Congress shares our view." said Strickland in his opening statement, "I urge this Subcommittee to help close the justice gap by approving our 2008 budget request."
LSC President Barnett highlighted how LSC provides effective and efficient oversight to its grantees, ensuring the delivery of high-quality legal services in compliance with Congressional restrictions and LSC regulations.
"But LSC cannot fully realize its mission as long as the justice gap endures," said Barnett. "We need a multi-pronged effort to secure more resources from both the public and the private sector. In this effort, the federal government must lead the way....I join Chairman Strickland in urging this Subcommittee to help close the justice gap in measured strides and approve our 2008 budget request for $430 million."
All Subcommittee members in attendance commended the work of LSC and expressed appreciation for the valuable contributions made by LSC-funded programs. Subcommittee Chairman Alan Mollohan (D-WV) opened the hearing by describing "justice for all" as a fundamental American principle, adding that more must be done to ensure the principle does not "ring hollow."
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), Ranking Member of the Subcommittee, was detained during the hearing, but arrived at the very end and simply complimented the "fantastic work" done by LSC-funded programs in his state.
To read LSC Chairman Strickland's opening statement, click here.
Ronald Staudt, a professor and associate vice president at the Chicago-Kent College of Law at the Illinois Institute of Technology, has been recognized by the Legal Services Corporation for "outstanding contributions" to LSC's six-year-old Technology Initiative Grants (TIG) program. The award is the first of its kind.
Ron Staudt receives TIG award from LSC President Helaine M. Barnett.
Staudt received the award during a banquet at the 2007 Equal Justice Conference (see story below). In presenting the award, LSC President Helaine M. Barnett said, "TIG projects have created a sea change in the delivery of civil legal aid. They have educated low-income Americans about our legal system, equipped them to represent themselves in court, and enabled them to secure millions of dollars in earned benefits. At the same time, they have enhanced technical expertise among LSC-funded programs, increasing efficiency and improving the quality of service for clients coast to coast.
"From the start, our Technology Initiative Grants program has had no better friend, no stronger supporter, and no more generous contributor than Ron Staudt."
Staudt arranged for the Chicago-Kent College of Law to host two early TIG conferences--in 2001 and 2002. The school provided space to meet, people to help, equipment to use, and absorbed the entire cost. He also arranged for LexisNexis to donate the "HotDocs" software used to create court forms and legal documents online, a donation valued at more than $100,000. Staudt was also very much involved in the "A2J Author" project that develops multimedia applications for statewide legal services web sites.
In his current position at the Chicago-Kent School of Law, Staudt is director of the Center for Access to Justice, which emphasizes use of the Internet and builds Web-based tools for legal services advocates, pro bono volunteers, and pro se litigants. Previously, he worked as a lawyer in private practice, as a legal aid attorney, and as a publishing industry executive.
To read the full press release announcing the award, click here.
On March 22-24, the American Bar Association and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA) co-hosted the 2007 Equal Justice Conference in Denver, Colorado. At the annual conference, LSC shares its accomplishments and discusses other issues of importance with a diverse cross section of the civil legal services community, including staff of pro bono and legal services programs, judges, corporate counsel, court administrators, private lawyers, paralegals, and others. The primary focus of this year's conference was celebrating the collaboration of pro bono and legal services, and exploring opportunities for additional partnerships.
This year, LSC staff participated in a number of workshops at the conference, including a "Hot Topics in Legal Aid" session featuring LSC President Helaine M. Barnett and others. The workshop focused on developments at LSC, LSC's funding outlook for FY 2008, private attorney involvement initiatives, and other issues of interest.
Another highlight was a workshop on LSC's Private Attorney Involvement Action Plan, facilitated by a number of staff from LSC's Office of Program Performance (OPP). Participants engaged in a positive and constructive discussion about ways to increase the participation of pro bono attorneys in the delivery of legal services to clients of LSC-funded programs. Participants also shared their thoughts and suggestions on a proposed LSC program letter on enhancing pro bono involvement with LSC grantees.
LSC staff participated in many other workshops with a variety of themes, including program quality, disaster relief, technology, and issues facing legal services providers in rural areas and the Dep South.
The conference also gave LSC an opportunity to unveil its redesigned Resource Library website, available at www.lri.lsc.gov. The redesigned site features a new "Private Attorney Involvement" section containing information aimed at helping LSC-funded programs expand and develop new and creative ways to increase private attorney involvement.
For more information on other LSC initiatives, visit LSC's website.
For more information on the Equal Justice Conference, click here.
LSC has issued a revised version of its Performance Criteria for LSC-funded programs. The new version contains references to the revised American Bar Association's (ABA) Standards for the Provision of Civil Legal Aid, which were issued in August 2006. Next month, copies of the revised Performance Criteria will be mailed to all staff of all LSC grantees, as well as all members of their Boards of Directors.
This revision to LSC's Performance Criteria is a key part of LSC's overall quality initiative, a multi-pronged strategy to ensure that all legal services programs provide high-quality legal assistance. LSC uses the Criteria to assess program quality and performance, and uses it as a guide in the competitive grants process.
To download a copy of LSC's revised Performance Criteria, click here.
A new report by the Center for American Progress (CAP) predicts a dramatic increase in foreclosures in the near future, and recommends increased access to legal aid as a solution to the problem. The report, From Boom to Bust: Helping Families Prepare for the Rise in Subprime Mortgage Foreclosures, notes that "...as many as 2.2 million families face the prospect of losing their homes in the coming years. This follows in the wake of more than 1.2 million foreclosure filings in 2006, up 42 percent from 2005."
Why the increase? The report explains that "non-traditional" mortgages with "complex interest rate terms and conditions" originally designed for wealthier people have been increasingly sold to the poor and middle class. After a few years, the mortgage rates increase to a level unanticipated by the homeowner, who can no longer afford the payments, and the mortgage holder then forecloses.
The solution? The report recommends increased access to legal aid programs as a crucial element to preventing foreclosures. While traditional mortgage assistance and foreclosure prevention programs provide valuable services to homeowners, the report notes their inability to confront predatory lenders and hold them responsible. "Thus, equally important for families...are programs that include legal aid services for victims of predation....While foreclosure prevention programs save families' homes, legal aid services provide the necessary leverage to effectively curtail predatory lenders' practices."
For an example of an effective legal aid program, the report highlights the Foreclosure Prevention Project run by South Brooklyn Legal Services, part of the LSC-funded Legal Services for New York City. The Project represents people facing foreclosure and victims of predatory lending, and provides mortgage counseling to low- and moderate-income homeowners. In the last two years, the program has provided 498 borrowers with consumer counseling and legal aid services.
Meghan Fox, who works on the project for SBLS, said, "Access to legal services is essential to ensure that home owners understand and can exercise their legal rights and save their homes. Brokers and lenders are using unscrupulous, predatory tactics to induce low-income, often minority, homeowners into exotic mortgage products that are unaffordable from their inception and completely unsuitable for the borrower. Without legal assistance, many home owners will lose both their home and all the equity they have built up."
A recent New York Times editorial echoed the findings of the CAP report, saying that "[t]he most plausible relief measures...involve federal boosts to existing state and local programs" including legal aid programs.
To read From Boom to Bust, click here.
For more information on SBLS's Foreclosure Prevention Project, click here.
To read the New York Times editorial, click here. REGISTRATION REQUIRED
Eighty percent of poor households--or more than 500,000 Wisconsinites--facing legal problems do so without legal help, according to a new study.
Bridging the Justice Gap: Wisconsin's Unmet Legal Needs was released on March 9, 2007, by the State Bar of Wisconsin's Access to Justice Commission. The report relies on a professional legal needs survey of low- and middle-income households throughout the state.
The report found that 45% of the households surveyed reported a need for legal assistance in at least one area of law. Most sought legal assistance but could not obtain it. The report also found that residents of urban areas were more likely to have had a legal problem than rural residents, and that legal problems were more frequently encountered by households with the lowest incomes, minority households, and households with children.
In all, the report found that 80% of households with legal problems do not receive legal assistance, and that 60% of the time, the other party is represented by a lawyer.
The report contains eight recommendations to help close Wisconsin's justice gap, including increased state funding, the establishment of a permanent Access to Justice Commission, and the establishment of self-help centers for unrepresented litigants in every courthouse.
To download the report, click here.
Nancy McCarthy, California Bar Journal - March 2007
The gap between the resources needed to meet the legal needs of California's low-income population and the resources that actually are available is so huge that it would take an infusion of nearly $400 million to close it, according to a just-released report by the California Commission on Access to Justice.
Indeed, the commission found that despite some gains in terms of overall resources, two-thirds of the legal needs of the poverty community go unmet, and that those who get some services often receive only minimal help.
"Many people are still shut out of the system," said Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Steven Austin, who headed an access commission task force that developed an "action plan" to achieve access to justice. He called the number of unrepresented litigants a crisis that he sees firsthand in his Martinez courtroom on a daily basis.
Among the task force's findings:
- In 2005, only 754 California lawyers worked as legal aid attorneys. That translates into one legal aid lawyer for every 8,361 low income Californians. On the other hand, there is one private attorney for every 250 Californians.
- Two of three eligible low-income clients with meritorious cases are turned away.
- IOLTA (Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts) funding, which serves as the underpinning for many legal aid programs, declined by $14.6 million between 1993 and 2005, a 59 percent drop.
- Although core funding for legal services (from IOLTA, the Legal Services Corp. and California's Equal Access Fund) increased by $7 million from 1993 to 2005, when adjusted for inflation, the 2005 money actually represented a decline in funding.
- Self-help centers are helping to fill the gap in county courthouses, but the courts need $44 million to fully achieve self-help assistance. Current funding provides $8.7 million statewide.
Note: The final report of the California Commission on Access to Justice is not currently available online.
For more information on the Commission, click here.
To read the California Bar Journal article in its entirety, click here.
DNA-People's Legal Services Breathes New Life Into the Free Exercise of Religion for Native Americans
Prepared by Staff of DNA-People's Legal Services
On March 12th, 2007, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a unanimous decision that prevents a ski resort in Arizona from expanding and using treated sewage effluent for snowmaking on the San Francisco Peaks--a sacred site to 13 southwest tribes and hundreds of thousands of Native Americans. In the suit, DNA-People's Legal Services fought for the protection of this widely recognized sacred site under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act ("RFRA"), the National Environmental Policy Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act and received a precedent-setting ruling under RFRA on behalf of their clients.
For DNA client Norris Nez, a 75 year old Hataal (Navajo Medicine Man), the ruling means that he will be able to continue gathering plants for medicine from the mountain, transmitting prayers through his medicine bundle, and making pilgrimages to the mountain. The Hualapai Tribe, clients of DNA, will still be able to collect sacred water for use in ceremonies and healing from the very springs that are at the center of their creation stories. And for Bill Bucky Preston, a Hopi Spiritual Runner, the ruling protects the dwelling place for his people's ancestral beings, the Katchina, who for thousands of years have brought moral teachings to the Hopi people.
Based on the 9th Circuit's ruling, Native people will now be able to use RFRA to prevent government activity on federal land that places a substantial burden on their ability to practice their religion--unless the government can justify the burden by showing a compelling interest in the activity and that they have used the least restrictive means to achieve that interest. Such a remedy was not available to Native Americans under traditional First Amendment jurisprudence and may now prove to be an invaluable tool for the protection of sacred sites.
DNA Executive Director, Levon B. Henry, commented: "We are extremely gratified that the federal appeals court has upheld our position. We have fought all along for Native rights under the Federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The Court got it right when it said: 'the record in this case established the religious importance of the Peaks to the Appellant tribes who live around it. From time immemorial, they have relied on the Peaks, and the purity of the Peaks' water, as an integral part of their religious beliefs. The Forest Service and the Snowbowl now propose to put treated sewage effluent on the Peaks. To get some sense of equivalence, it may be useful to imagine the effect on Christian beliefs and practices--and the imposition that Christians would experience--if the government were to require that baptisms be carried out with "reclaimed water.'"
Mr. Henry went on to add: "This was a team effort and we appreciate the great help of Jack Trope and the Association on American Indian Affairs."
For more information on DNA-People's Legal Services, click here.
Richard McMahon, Executive Director of the New Center for Legal Advocacy.
Richard McMahon, Executive Director of the New Center for Legal Advocacy (NCLA), has received a Legal Services Award from the Massachusetts Bar Association (MBA).
The award is given to civil legal services attorneys who have gone beyond the call of duty and made significant contributions to the provision of civil legal services to the poor.
McMahon has dedicated his entire career to the delivery of civil legal services. Immediately following his graduation from law school in 1980, McMahon worked with the Montana Legal Services Association as part of the Volunteers in Service to America program. From there he worked with a variety of legal services programs throughout the country before joining NCLA, where he has been since 1997. McMahon also directs a private attorney involvement program with a focus on pro bono recruitment and case referral.
In honoring McMahon, the MBA noted that McMahon's tireless dedication to the poor stands as a testament to his integrity, character and humility."
To visit the New Center for Legal Advocacy on the web, click here.
The March 14, 2007 issue of LSC Updates contained an inadvertent typographical error in the article entitled, "Rich Lawyers To Help Ones Who Aid Poor." The fourth paragraph of the article read "Idealistic young attorneys who graduate from law school and join the Legal Assistance Foundation or Chicago Volunteer Legal Services to help poor people generally only last about 20 years before it gets too tough to pay back their law school loans..." The correct figure is 2 1/2 years, not 20.
To read the corrected article, click here.