On July 26, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the $28 million budget increase for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) included in the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies (CJS) funding bill for FY 2008. This 8 percent increase, which would bring funding for the Corporation to a total of $377 million, would be LSC's second consecutive increase and a $50 million gain over two years.
Rep. David Obey (D-WI), Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, lauded the increase saying, "I also am pleased that the Legal Service Corporation is funded at a level $66 million higher than the President's request. All I can say about that is that it is about time."
Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-WV), Chairman of the CJS Subcommittee, said about LSC funding, "If equal protection under the law means anything, it means equal access to the law."
In June, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a 12 percent or $41.4 million increase in the Corporation's budget for next year.
LSC President Helaine M. Barnett said, "I would like to thank Chairman Mollohan and Ranking Member Frelinghuysen for working to make this increase possible. An additional $28 million will allow legal aid programs throughout the country to serve thousands more low-income people faced with daunting civil legal problems."
To read the press release in its entirety, click here.
LSC's Board of Directors met in Nashville, Tenn., on July 27-28, for its third of four meetings in 2007.
The meeting began with a visit to the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands (LASMTC) to learn about its tax advocacy work for clients, community education work, and the statewide collaboration and coordination of all four LSC-funded legal services programs in Tennessee: LASMTC, Legal Aid of East Tennessee, Memphis Area Legal Services, and West Tennessee Legal Services.
Mayor Bill Purcell welcomed the Board to Nashville, and Tennessee Bar Association President Marcia Eason delivered the keynote address at the luncheon that followed the program visit.
Left to Right: Tennessee Bar Association President Marcia Eason, Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell, LSC President Helaine M. Barnett, and LSC Board Chairman Frank B. Strickland
At a reception in honor of the LSC Board, LSC President Helaine M. Barnett and Provisions Committee Chair David Hall, presented five Tennessee attorneys with pro bono awards in recognition of their extraordinary commitment to providing equal access to justice to clients of Tennessee's LSC-funded programs. The award recipients were:
Left to Right: Mary Jo Middlebrooks, Legal Aid of East Tennessee Executive Director David Yoder (standing in for Leslie B. McWilliams), Donald Capparella, Provisions Committee Chair David Hall, David M. Cook, Andrew C. Branham, and LSC President Helaine M. Barnett.
The Board Committee for the Provision for the Delivery of Legal Services heard a panel presentation on recruitment and retention issues facing legal services programs, with a focus on leadership transition. Current and former heads of three LSC-funded programs--the Northwest Justice Project (WA), the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands, and Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services--participated in the presentation. Panelists shared the ways in which their programs have approached transitions in leadership.
The Operations and Regulations Committee met to discuss rulemaking regarding the adoption of "lesser sanctions"--additional tools to ensure LSC-funded programs comply with all applicable laws and regulations--and rulemaking governing the eligibility of Micronesians, Marshall Islanders, and Palauans for LSC-funded legal services. The committee decided to postpone action on the lesser sanctions issue pending receipt of preliminary public comment, but decided to engage in expedited rulemaking to permit residents of the Freely Associated States (FAS) listed above to receive LSC-funded services anywhere in the United States. Currently, FAS members are only eligible for LSC-funded services in their home states. The committee also approved revised grant assurances for 2008, which govern the relationship between LSC and LSC-funded programs in the context of a specific grant. The revised grant assurances more clearly delineate the rights and responsibilities of both parties by eliminating duplication, combining grant assurances of a similar purpose, and grouping the assurances based on their purposes.
The Finance Committee reviewed LSC's FY 2007 budget and agreed to set LSC's budget mark for FY 2009--the amount LSC will request from Congress--at a September meeting.
LSC's Board of Directors will meet again in Portland, Maine, from October 26-27.
Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA)
On July 24, 2007, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved the Higher Education Amendments of 2007 (S. 1642), which include a provision to provide loan repayment assistance to civil legal aid attorneys.
The provision was introduced by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) as an amendment to the bill. Sen. Harkin originally introduced the measure as a separate bill (S. 1167) on April 19, 2007.
The provision creates a loan repayment assistance program to be administered by the Department of Education, which would provide up to $6,000 a year--up to $40,000 for a lifetime--in educational debt relief for civil legal aid attorneys. Recipients would commit to a minimum of three additional years of service, or be required to repay the benefits they received. Priority would be given to legal aid lawyers with five years of experience or less. The provision authorizes $10 million in appropriations for FY 2008.
The bill is awaiting action in the House, where it will have to pass before being sent to the President for final approval.
The Boards of Washington State's Northwest Justice Project, Colorado Legal Services, Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas and the four LSC-funded programs in Tennessee (Legal Aid of East Tennessee, Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands, Memphis Area Legal Services, and West Tennessee Legal Services) have adopted resolutions aimed at increasing private attorney involvement in the delivery of legal services to their clients, bringing to 11 the number of program boards that have adopted such resolutions.
LSC is encouraging all program Boards of Directors to adopt similar resolutions. The adoption of 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."
For more information on private attorney involvement, visit LSC's Resource Library.
Like LSC's Technology Initiative Grants program (TIG), developers of "open source" software thrive on collaboration. TIG's approach to Web site development is praised as an example for "the broader world of government-funded nonprofit organizations" in a new publication from the prestigious Information Science Reference service, Handbook on Research on Open Source Software: Technological, Economic, and Social Perspectives.
The handbook's seven-page article about the TIG program, "OSS Adoption in the Legal Services Community," quotes Joyce Raby, a member of LSC's TIG team: "No one has to start from scratch. In addition, enhancements to the Web sites are much less costly. As we have improved and refined how the Web sites would operate, each improvement only has to be created once and is immediately available to all other users. The incremental cost for replication around the country is negligible compared to what it would have been to do custom development for many individual standalone sites."
The numbers bear her out. According to the article, the combined cost of developing the first two sites was $175,000 and "[t]he resulting template system was thereafter made available to other organizations at a cost of $10,000 per site."
The Handbook of Research on Open Source Software: Technological, Economic, and Social Perspectives is available at amazon.com and the publisher's Web site.
Missouri Governor Matt Blunt
On July 13, Missouri Governor Matt Blunt signed a bill to extend the life of the state's Basic Civil Legal Services Fund for five years. The fund, which collects approximately $3.3 million a year for Missouri's four LSC-funded legal services programs (Legal Aid of Western Missouri, Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, Mid-Missouri Legal Services Corporation, and Legal Services of Southern Missouri) was set to expire on the last day of 2007. Governor Blunt's approval of the bill will keep the fund alive until the end of 2012.
The four programs estimated that loss of the funds would have left approximately 10,000 people without access to their services, according to news reports.
For more information, click here.
South Jersey Legal Services (SJLS) has partnered with the Rutgers School of Law in Camden and several private law firms to create the Children's SSI Project, which helps families with disabled children apply for Social Security Income.
"This is a win-win project for everyone involved," says Kate Myers, Director of Pro Bono Services at SJLS. "The clients receive the benefit of highly-skilled attorneys who have been specially trained to handle children's SSI cases. The attorneys who volunteer to accept a case pro bono are excited about the opportunity to impact a disabled child's life in a meaningful way. Law students from Rutgers-Camden gain valuable, hands-on experience representing clients in an administrative law setting, and South Jersey Legal Services is delighted to be able to expand services to this vulnerable client population."
Wachovia Bank of Georgia has agreed to begin paying higher interest rates on Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts (IOLTA), where attorneys hold funds for their clients. Interest on these accounts is collected by the Georgia Bar Foundation and distributed to legal services programs, including the LSC-funded Georgia Legal Services Program and Atlanta Legal Aid Society.
Effective immediately, Wachovia will begin paying interest rates of 3.41 percent on accounts with $100,000 or more, compared to the previous .75 percent.
"Wachovia's decision to increase interest rates on these accounts demonstrates the bank's commitment and concern for the less fortunate in our state," said Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, in a State Bar of Georgia press release. "Wachovia's generosity will have a tremendous impact on the Bar Foundation's ability to support services for poor and vulnerable Georgians."
According to the Marietta Daily Journal, nearly 20 other Georgia banks have followed Wachovia's lead and agreed to increase their IOLTA rates.
To read the Georgia Bar's press release, click here.
Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Ann H. Lamar
The Mississippi Center for Legal Services and North Mississippi Rural Legal Services, both LSC-funded programs, recently received grants of $108,000 and $72,000, respectively, from the state's Supreme Court.
The money comes from the Civil Legal Assistance Fund administered by the high court, which collects certain fees and distributes them to civil legal services programs. Out-of-state lawyers representing clients in Mississippi courts pay $200 fees into the fund; a $5 fee for each civil filing also goes into the fund. According to news reports, the Civil Legal Assistance Fund has collected and distributed $1.02 million since its creation in 2003.
Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Ann H. Lamar told the Commercial Dispatch, "These legal services programs provide a great service to our state. They serve people who cannot afford legal representation. Without their help, many of these people would be denied access to our courts. Our legal service attorneys do a great job with very limited resources."
For more information, click here.
The Alaska Legal Services Corporation (ALSC) has received a $10,000 grant from the Anchorage Bar Association to expand AlaskaAdvocates.org, a Web site that provides access to substantive legal resources, volunteer opportunities, job announcements, an events calendar, and news articles for Alaska's legal aid, pro bono, and other public interest attorneys.
The Web site received initial funding from LSC's Technology Initiative Grants program, and is part of a national network of similar sites based on a template developed by Pro Bono Net, a New York-based nonprofit organization that supports innovative uses of technology by nonprofit legal groups.
ALSC Executive Director Andy Harrington said in a press release, "It makes one proud as an Alaskan that the Anchorage Bar Association is taking the leadership role in this endeavor and setting a role model for the rest of the country. Over the next year, we look forward to expanding the site to provide pro bono program directors with additional resources and tools to help volunteer attorneys promote equal access to justice for all low-income Alaskans."
For more information, click here.
Burns Hargis, The Tulsa World (OK) - July 15, 2007
Burns Hargis, co-chair of the Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma's 2007 Campaign for Justice
Imagine what it would be like to be poor and about to be evicted because you complained about the leak that occurs every time it rains. Or your spouse abuses you, the violence is beginning to escalate, you have no money and two little children. Or you are a 84-year-old widow with a big debt created by your spouse and his credit card company threatens to take payment directly from your meager bank account, leaving you with little to pay your bills.
In those situations the poor in Oklahoma have a place to turn--their local Legal Aid office. There are 19 such offices scattered throughout Oklahoma so that Legal Aid's attorneys can serve eligible low-income families and the elderly in all 77 counties.
To qualify, a family must be within 125 percent of the federal poverty guideline. That's poor--$25,813 a year for a family of four and $12,763 for a single person. Oklahoma has more than 600,000 residents who fall within those poverty guidelines and more than 24 percent of them are children.
Legal Aid's resources are stretched to the maximum. For every case they accept, they have to turn away a qualifying case due to a lack of resources, i.e. not enough staff attorneys. But, even at that, they've done a good job--closing more than 19,000 cases affecting the lives of 19,151 children. And, the cost per case closed was a mere $386. Most Oklahoma law firms won't even open a case for that amount.
Think what they could do if they had more money! Hire more attorneys, for sure! Help more people, no doubt.
To read the article in its entirety, click here.
Miguel C. Keberlein Gutierrez, Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, received the Kimball R. Anderson and Karen Gatsis Anderson Public Interest Law Fellowship from the Chicago Bar Association and Chicago Bar Foundation on July 9. Gutierrez, who provides legal assistance to migrant farmworkers, will receive $50,000 over five years to help pay off his law school debt. For more info, click here.
Marshall P. Eldred, Board Member of Kentucky's Legal Aid Society, and attorney with the law firm of Frost Brown Todd, received the Donated Legal Services Award from the Kentucky Bar Association at its recent annual meeting. Eldred received the award for his more than four decades of pro bono work with the Legal Aid Society. In addition, the Legal Aid Society received a $7,000 donation from Judge Boyce F. Martin, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, to establish a Marshall P. Eldred Award for Excellence in Advocacy, in recognition of a legal aid attorney who demonstrates extraordinary service in advocating for low-income clients. The winner of the annual award will receive a cash prize. For more info, click here.
(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.)
Ms. Flo knew it would be hard to get a good job; she had not completed her high school education. So when someone handed her a flyer about computer classes, she signed up. After three weeks of classes, Ms. Flo showed up one day only to find an empty room. The class organizers had taken her money and run. She not only lost her promised education, she lost her good credit rating--the "school" had helped her get a government-guaranteed student loan to pay tuition.
For two years, Ms. Flo tried to explain to the collection agency that she did not get the education and could not pay them. When she finally found a job, the Internal Revenue Service withheld her tax refunds to offset the guaranteed loan.
Eventually, Ms. Flo contacted Joy Simmons, a consumer rights attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. Simmons filed an application to discharge the loan, arguing the school had falsely certified Ms. Flo's ability to benefit from classes, had not provided the required remedial courses, and had closed during the course of computer studies. A year later, the loan was finally discharged.
Ms. Flo's credit has now been cleared, and she will receive a refund from the IRS. "In the cases I handle, you see a clear distinction between the good guys and the bad guys," says Simmons, reflecting on her 15 years of experience as a legal aid attorney. "Often, we're the very last resort for our clients."