On March 30, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 609, the College Access and Opportunity Act, which contains a provision that would make employees of legal services organizations eligible for student loan repayment assistance from the Department of Education. The bill would provide $5,000 in loan forgiveness for individuals with a baccalaureate or advanced degree willing to spend five years in an area of public service, defined as "any State, local government, Federal agency" or 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4) non-profit organization. However, the number of individuals eligible for loan repayment assistance under this program will be subject to available appropriations.
This provision was added to the bill in the form of an amendment offered by Rep. Jon Porter (R-NV) who, in a statement released after the bill's passage, said, "Many students graduate from college and professional schools with overwhelming debt, which prevents them from pursuing jobs with government agencies or legal services programs. By expanding loan forgiveness, we'll encourage more highly trained young men and women to enter and continue in areas of public service."
The bill will now go to the Senate to await action.
At the Equal Justice Conference in Philadelphia on March 31, LSC's revised performance criteria for grantees were unveiled in a session moderated by Karen Sarjeant, LSC's Vice President for Programs and Compliance. The performance criteria, which replace the 1994 criteria, will be used in the competitive grants process for 2007 grants, on program assessment visits, and are also intended for use in self-assessments by programs. Over 100 people attended the session, and the performance criteria were generally well received. Panelists included Robert Barge, Executive Director of Rhode Island Legal Services; Hannah Lieberman, Deputy Executive Director of the Legal Aid Bureau (Maryland); Jon Asher, Executive Director of Colorado Legal Services; and Cynthia Schneider, Deputy Director of LSC's Office of Program Performance.
The revised performance criteria will be available on the LSC website at www.lsc.gov in the near future.
On April 5, 2006 Sarah M. Singleton was formally sworn in as a member of LSC's Board of Directors. New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Bosson presided over the ceremony, which was held at the New Mexico State Bar Center in Albuquerque, NM.
Evelyn Nieves, The Washington Post - April 3, 2006
The seven sheepherders were eating lunch in a trailer with no toilet, heat or water, its leaky roof held down by a rope.
A lunch break, especially one together, was a rare event. But they were celebrating, sort of. Lambing season was ending. That's when the ewes give birth and the sheepherders who come to this country on three-year work visas put in their hardest 12- to 16-hour days, seven days a week.
Still, the sheepherders were steeling themselves for spring. From late March until fall, sheepherding is almost unbearably lonely. Each herder is driven deep into pastures far from town or even a paved road. For weeks on end, he sees no one but the boss, and rarely does he have a cellphone or radio.
In the list of jobs immigrants perform that no U.S. citizen wants, sheepherding must rank near the top. The 825 or so sheepherders who work the nation's sheep farms--mostly in California, Texas and Wyoming--are immigrants here on H-2A visas from Peru, Chile, Bolivia and Mexico, according to the Western Range Association, an industry group.
Their lot was supposed to change, at least in California. In 2001, the state legislature passed a law imposing new labor standards for sheepherders. They were to have adequate housing, with toilets, heat and potable water. They were to get graduated raises, from $800 to $1,300 a month at present, and they were to get vacation. But in March 2005, a report by Central California Legal Services, a Fresno-based legal aid group, found that little had changed.
Chris A. Schneider, executive director of Central California Legal Services, began monitoring the sheep ranches in 1990. He wrote his first comprehensive report on the sheepherders' plight in 2000, after unsuccessfully trying to get federal minimum wage laws to apply to herding.
Schneider had hoped that the publicity surrounding last year's report (which found that 91 percent of sheepherders' trailers had no toilet) would embarrass the ranchers into complying with the law--or prompt the state Employment Development Department (EDD), which inspects the sheepherders' living quarters, to step up scrutiny.
Instead, he found sheepherders using shovels to bury their waste. Old water jugs, some lined with mold, provided for their drinking, bathing and cooking. Trailers were powered by car batteries.
"I'm concerned that I don't see any real desire on the part of the agencies who are supposed to enforce this to carry this out," Schneider said.
Cynthia Di Pasquale, The Daily Record (MD) - March 27, 2006
When interest rates slumped about three years ago, IOLTA--interest on lawyer trust accounts--inevitably followed suit. Now that interest rates have climbed (most recently to 4.5 percent on short-term federal funds), the Maryland Legal Services Corp. has been campaigning for increases in IOLTA, a key funding source for its low-income clientele. Last week, a national bank did just that. Wachovia raised its IOLTA rates at the request of a "major" IOLTA depositor, who prefers to remain anonymous. Although pleased with the anticipated $750,000 annual boost in revenue this rate hike will generate, MLSC Executive Director Susan Erlichman wants more lawyers to ask the same of their own banks.
"We're not trying to get attorneys to change banks...," Erlichman said, "just get them to change their banks' behavior, so IOLTA is implemented the way it was intended."
Note: The Maryland Legal Services Corporation administers Maryland's IOLTA program, and makes grants for the provision of legal services to low-income persons.
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Press Release, LegalMatch - April 3, 2006
LegalMatch, a national provider of online legal services, and Pine Tree Legal Assistance, a nonprofit company that provides legal services for Maine's poor, have reached an amicable settlement in a legal dispute. According to the original suit, advertisements from California-based LegalMatch appeared when a computer user typed "Pine Tree Legal Assistance" into web search engines including Yahoo!, MSN, and Google. The suit, filed on February 28, 2006 in U.S. District Court on behalf of Pine Tree Legal Assistance, has now been settled with no monies changing hands.
According to Don Keane, Vice President of Marketing for LegalMatch, "We [LegalMatch] are working with the nation's major search engines, including Google, Yahoo!, and MSN, to make sure non-profits are not part of our multi-million dollar search engine marketing program. We have the greatest respect for non-profit agencies that service people's legal needs." LegalMatch is a free online legal matching service based in San Francisco, California, and Pine Tree Legal Assistance is a non-profit provider of free legal services to people in need and serving the State of Maine.
Justice Newsletter, Legal Services of Eastern Missouri - Spring 2006
The St. Louis Family Justice Center opened its doors on January 12. The St. Louis center is one of about 15 opening across the country to assist victims of domestic violence. The city of St. Louis received a Department of Justice grant that will fund the center, and Legal Services of Eastern Missouri (LSEM) received a grant to plan the opening and coordinate the delivery of civil legal services with other agencies. U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales attended the opening, spoke to the crowd, and toured the new center. He was joined by St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay.
LSEM will be staffing the center mainly with the help of members of the Volunteer Lawyers Program. Other agencies that will be working with LSEM to provide civil legal assistance include Legal Advocates for Abused Women, the Washington University and Saint Louis University law school clinics, and the Catholic Legal Assistance Ministry.
Note: LSC's Board of Directors will visit the St. Louis Family Justice Center in connection with their meeting in St. Louis, to be held April 28-29, 2006.
Judy Harrison, The Bangor Daily News (ME) - March 22, 2006
The nation's promise of justice for all doesn't guarantee equal access to legal services for everyone but maybe it should, according to a group dedicated to improving access to justice in Maine.
The Justice Action Group, composed of nearly 100 judges, lawyers, social service providers and representatives from advocacy groups, met [March 21] at Maple Hill Farm Inn to begin work on a plan that would break down barriers to justice. Participants will work in small groups over the next year, then issue a series of recommendations about how to improve the delivery of justice throughout the state.
"Maine is at the forefront of addressing the legal needs of low-income Mainers," Sally Sutton, executive coordinator of JAG, said Tuesday. "But three out of four people still don't have access to legal services. The people at this meeting recognize something has to happen to change that. The question is how do we close that gap."
Funding greater access to justice will continue to be a major hurdle, Judson Esty Kendall, who works for Pine Tree Legal Assistance in Bangor, said Tuesday during a break. When he began working for the organization more than 25 years ago, about 80 percent of its funding came from the federal government.
Today, 41 percent, or $2.7 million of the $6.6 million spent annually for civil legal aid in Maine, comes from Washington, D.C. The state contributes more than $800,000, or 12 percent; court fees and fines make up about $950,000, or 14 percent; more than $1 million, or 16 percent, comes from private grants and contributions; and the rest of the funding coming from contributions from lawyers and the interest on money lawyers hold in trust for clients.
"Maine has done a pretty good job of funding legal service," Esty Kendall said. "What has not increased in years is the federal portion. If we are going to get an infusion of funds, it has to come from Washington and that gets into the whole issue of funding priorities."
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Jane Pribek, The Wisconsin Law Journal - March 22, 2006
More than 40 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the right to counsel for defendants in criminal cases in the landmark case of Gideon vs. Wainright.
To attorney John F. Ebbott, of Legal Action of Wisconsin Inc. in Milwaukee, it's almost unbelievable that before then, indigent criminal defendants were left to fend for themselves in the justice system with their liberty at stake. He predicts that, 40 years from now, people will look back at the justice system before civil litigants were extended the same fundamental right, and they, similarly, will find it inconceivable.
Ebbott, Legal Action's executive director, is representing Diana Ronnfeldt-Mendoza in her appeal of a child custody matter, in which she is asking the Wisconsin Supreme Court to establish a right to court-appointed counsel in civil cases, otherwise known as the "civil Gideon."
Jimmie E. Gates, The Clarion-Ledger (MS) - March 31, 2006
Melvina Rochon, 37, of New Orleans was evacuated to Houston, Texas, after Hurricane Katrina and then to Jackson after Hurricane Rita.
On Thursday, Rochon and about a dozen others were the first to arrive for a free Katrina legal clinic at New Jerusalem Baptist Church on Raymond Road in Jackson.
The clinic offered legal advice on housing, Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance, FEMA appeals, Small Business Administration loans, insurance and other issues.
Attorneys from the Mississippi Center for Legal Services, Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, private lawyers volunteering their services and others were available to offer assistance.
Lindia Robinson, an official with Mississippi Center for Legal Services Corp., said several such clinics have been conducted in the Gulf Coast area, but none in the Jackson area.
"There are still people with legal issues that need to be resolved," Robinson said.
A.J. Tavares of the Legal Aid Society of Orange County (LASOC) was honored with the National Legal Aid and Defender Association's Innovations in Technology Award at the 2006 Equal Justice Conference, held in Philadelphia, Penn. on March 31. Tavares received the award, given annually in recognition of outstanding contributions to innovation in the delivery of legal services, for serving as project manager of LASOC's I-CAN! Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) project. Tavares led the four-person team of Don Gaymon, Kiki Banuelos, and Carla Gladman, who was responsible for creating and implementing the technology that makes up the I-CAN! EITC program.
ICAN! EITC, which has received $400,000 in Technology Initiative Grants from the Legal Services Corporation, is a web-based application that helps low-wage earners claim the Federal Earned Income Tax Credit and complete their federal tax forms. It was designed by the Legal Aid Society of Orange County specifically to help the working poor claim the EITC and keep it. The program, which is now being used by other legal services programs, has saved at least $4 million for low-income individuals and families to date.
Merrill Gonzalez, The Bradford Era (PA) - March 7, 2006
Whoever said nice guys finish last never met local attorney Paul Troskosky.
Even if they had, they would know that he doesn't care where he finishes just as long as he has done something meaningful for someone else.
For his 32 years of "compassionate" service, Troskosky will receive a 2006 Excellence Award from Pennsylvania Legal Services. He is the managing attorney of the Northwestern Legal Services (NWLS) Bradford office.
The award honors members and friends of the legal aid community in Pennsylvania who exemplify excellence in their work on behalf of low-income clients with civil legal concerns.
NWLS Executive Director Robert Oakley said he has known Troskosky a little over 11 years and believes "he is certainly deserving of this prestigious award."
"He's highly respected with our staff and he is certainly empathetic and understanding about our client community and the community as a whole. He is a compassionate individual. His experience and tenacity of being an attorney, I believe, make him deserving of this award," said Oakley.
Note: Paul Troskosky has announced his retirement from Northwestern Legal Services, effective May 1, 2006.
(Legal aid is about helping ordinary people with real-life problems. Client stories from the field illustrate the day-to-day struggles - and victories - of poor Americans seeking justice under law.)
March 30, 2006
The Atlanta Legal Aid Society, along with the AARP, former Georgia Governor Roy Barnes, and the law firm Bondurant, Mixon and Elmore forced a settlement on behalf of 14 clients they were representing in a legal battle with Stewart Financing Company, a sub-prime lender charged by the Federal Trade Commission with deceiving consumers.
The clients claimed that Stewart charged exorbitant interest rates for short-term loans and also charged fees for bogus insurance policies. These loan packages were marketed in ways that exploited the disabled, disadvantaged and elderly.
As part of the settlement, Stewart agreed to shut down all of its businesses, liquidate all its assets, and contribute approximately $10 million to a fund for victims.