The U.S. Congress has not yet approved a final version of the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies (CJS) spending bill, which contains LSC's appropriation for fiscal year 2008.
House and Senate conferees were scheduled to meet last week and resolve differences in the two versions of the bill, but the meeting was postponed due to a controversial provision in the bill unrelated to LSC. The House approved a total of $377 million for LSC in July of this year, while the Senate approved $390 million in October.
Pending final passage of the CJS bill, LSC will continue to be funded at FY 2007 levels through December 14, 2007, under a continuing appropriations resolution signed into law on November 13.
On November 15, the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor voted unanimously to approve the College Opportunity and Affordability Act (H.R. 4137), which provides, in part, for loan repayment assistance to civil legal aid lawyers.
Section 425 of the bill creates a loan repayment assistance program to be administered by the Department of Education, which would provide up to $6,000 a year--$40,000 for a lifetime--in educational debt relief for full-time civil legal aid attorneys. Recipients will be required to remain employed as civil legal aid attorneys for three years, or be required to repay any benefits received. Benefits would be awarded on a first-come first-served basis, with priority given to lawyers with five years of experience or less.
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., Chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, sponsored the bill with committee member Rep. Rubn Hinojosa, D-TX. Rep. Howard McKeon, R-Calif., Ranking Member of the committee, also championed the bill and credited Rep. Miller for the bipartisan way he worked to move it through committee.
The U.S. Senate has already approved this provision as part of the Higher Education Amendments Act (S.1642), which it passed in late July of this year. Senator Tom Harkin, D-IA, originally proposed this program in a separate bill he introduced in April.
In September, a different bill providing for loan repayment assistance to civil legal aid attorneys was signed into law. That bill, the College Cost Reduction and Access Act (H.R. 2669), would forgive the remaining debt balance for 10-year public service employees, which includes civil legal aid lawyers. Other provisions of the bill would provide for drastically reduced monthly payments for holders of certain federal loans, with the remaining balance to be forgiven after 25 years.
On November 8, the American Bar Association (ABA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) signed a new agreement aimed at improving the delivery of legal services to low-income victims of natural disasters.
The new agreement allows attorneys with the ABA's Young Lawyers Division (YLD), which contracts with FEMA to provide disaster-related legal assistance, to sue government agencies-including FEMA-in regard to legal problems arising from natural disasters. Attorneys will also be able to help clients appeal denial of benefits by government agencies. Volunteer lawyers were previously prohibited from assisting with these issues. The new agreement covers all volunteer lawyers, including attorneys with LSC-funded programs, who work with disaster victims at FEMA's Disaster Recovery Centers.
The LSC-funded Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA) sued FEMA in August of this year, arguing that FEMA's restrictions on representation violated the First Amendment rights of lawyers and their clients.
At FEMA's request, LSC participated in negotiations between representatives of FEMA, the ABA YLD, TRLA, and the Department of Justice to create the new agreement.
"The Legal Services Corporation is proud of its delivery of civil legal services to victims who have suffered from major natural disasters. Since the fall of 2005, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf region, LSC has helped coordinate disaster legal services throughout the country, along with LSC programs, the ABA, and members of the private bar. We are pleased to have played a role in the negotiation of the current agreement," said LSC President Helaine M. Barnett.
To read the ABA's press release, click here.
The National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA) held its 2007 Annual Conference in Tucson, Arizona, on November 7-10.
LSC President Helaine M. Barnett updated the conferees on developments at LSC, including the 2008 All Executive Directors Meeting, the upcoming Technology Initiative Grant Conference, and the development of LSC's strategic plan for technology. She also discussed elements of LSC's Quality Agenda, including LSC's focus on recruitment and retention issues at LSC-funded programs.
LSC staff were major presenters at a number of training sessions on LSC initiatives, including the revised Case Service Report Handbook, Performance Criteria, and pro bono action plan. LSC staff also presented on other issues of broad importance to the legal services community, including technology, disaster planning, leadership development, and intake.
LSC held a meeting with staff from Native American programs immediately prior to the conference. The more than 45 people in attendance participated in productive discussions on funding and delivery issues unique to their programs.
Representatives of two LSC-funded programs were honored during the NLADA's Annual Awards Luncheon held on November 9. Amelia Nieto, board member of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA), received the Mary Ellen Hamilton Award, given to clients who have provided extraordinary support to the delivery of legal services to the poor. Nieto has served on LAFLA's board since 1999 and has a deep commitment to the low-income community. Rau Mona Tawatao, regional counsel with Legal Services of Northern California, received the prestigious Reginald Heber Smith Award, given in recognition of dedicated services and outstanding achievements of a civil legal aid attorney. Tawatao has developed a national reputation for her groundbreaking advocacy on housing preservation initiatives and other issues.
For more information on the NLADA Annual Conference, click here.
For more information on the award winners, click here.
The Boards of Directors of five more LSC-funded programs have adopted resolutions aimed at increasing the involvement of private attorneys in the delivery of legal services to their clients, bringing to 56 the total number of programs who have adopted such resolutions. The five programs are:
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."
For a complete list of programs who have adopted pro bono resolutions, click here.
LASH to Participate in Three-Year Campaign To Boost Funding
A new report has found that only one in five low and moderate-income Hawaiians have their legal needs met.
The report, Achieving Access to Justice for Hawaii's People, was released on November 7 by the Access to Justice Hui, a group of representatives from the state bar association, legal services organizations, state courts, and a law school, organized to assess the legal needs of the poor and develop an action plan to improve access to justice.
The report also found that legal services providers can only help 30 percent of those who contact them for assistance, and that the areas of greatest unmet need involve housing, family law, domestic violence and consumer law. In addition to cost, other significant barriers to accessing legal services include language and cultural barriers, lack of knowledge of legal rights and availability of services.
The report includes a ten-step action plan to increase access to justice in Hawaii by 2010. The plan recommends that stakeholders work to create a statewide commission to coordinate efforts to improve access to justice, to seek increased funding for legal services programs, to increase pro bono services to low-income clients, and enable people to represent themselves effectively when necessary.
The Legal Aid Society of Hawaii (LASH) was active in the Access to Justice Hui and the completion of the report and the action plan. On November 15, LASH announced that it would join other leaders from Hawaii's legal community to launch a three-year $1 million fundraising campaign to help expand services to Hawaii's poor. Members of the fundraising committee include nearly two dozen attorneys from law firms and corporate legal departments from around the state. LASH Executive Director Chuck Greenfield said, "I'm excited at the prospect of working with this talented and dedicated group of attorneys to raise the funds necessary for us to increase our capacity and serve more families in need of assistance."
To download the report, click here.
To read, "Barriers keep poor from justice," in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, click here.
To read, "Hawaii Legal Aid starts $1M campaign," in the Pacific Business News, click here.
The Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago was featured in a recent USA Today article on foreclosure rescue scams, which more and more are affecting the clients of legal services programs.
"This has become the No. 1 problem in terms of calls we're getting and cases we're filing," said Daniel Lindsey, head of the foundation's Home Ownership Preservation Project.
A typical foreclosure rescue scam, also known as "equity skimming," works like this: a homeowner facing foreclosure is solicited by an unscrupulous organization or individual offering to buy the house and rent it back to the owner until they are back on their feet financially, at which point they are promised that ownership will revert back to them. Instead, the fraudulent "rescuer" borrows as much money as possible against the equity in the house while collecting rent from the original owner, and never paying a dime towards the mortgage. The house goes into foreclosure anyway, and all the equity in the house is gone, leaving the original owner with nothing.
Lindsey told USA Today that the saddest stories he hears are from retirees who have lost the only home they have ever had thanks to one of these scams.
"That property is their entire life, most of their wealth, they've raised their children there, they are completely emotionally invested in it, and that's exactly the last thing they want to lose," he says. "The vulnerability they are experiencing gets exploited by these rescuers.'"
To read, "Con artists circle over homeowners on edge," in the USA Today, click here.
The Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati (LASGC) has filed a federal lawsuit against Legal Aid Alternative, arguing that the for-profit's use of the term "legal aid" constitutes trademark infringement.
LASGC filed suit after learning that potential clients were approaching Legal Aid Alternative, listed next to LASGC in the phonebook, only to be turned away or charged a fee for useless documents.
"They do that just to prey on people who don't know any better," said Lou Gilligan, an attorney with LASGC, in an article from the Cincinnati Enquirer. "It's just disgraceful."
In its November 7 issue, LSC Updates reported on the San Francisco-based law firm of Morrison & Foerster's lawsuit against the Legal Center for Legal Aid, another "phony" legal aid organization. This suit was filed, in part, on behalf of the LSC-funded Bay Area Legal Services and Legal Services of Northern California.
To read, "Legal Aid sues copycat," in the Cincinnati Enquirer, click here.
On November 13, the Atlanta Legal Aid Society (ALAS) hosted a book signing and reception for author Kris Shepard, whose new book, Rationing Justice: Poverty Lawyers and Poor People in the Deep South, was recently published by Louisiana State University Press. LSC Board Chairman Frank B. Strickland attended, along with Steve Gottlieb and Phyllis Holmen, Executive Directors of ALAS and Georgia Legal Services Program (GLSP), respectively.
Shepard, currently practicing law in North Carolina, was a Ph.D. candidate at Emory University in the 1990s when he began researching the work of poverty lawyers in the South during the 1960s and 1970s. Their work, and its importance to the Civil Rights Movement, became the subject of his doctoral dissertation. Rationing Justice, which takes its title from the famous quote from Judge Learned Hand, was the fruit of that endeavor.
Shepard's book is based on reviews of hundreds of cases and interviews with dozens of attorneys from Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. Numerous attorneys from ALAS and GLSP are subjects of the book, including William J. Brennan, nationally known mortgage lending expert and 40-year veteran of ALAS, Robert Dokson and Sue Jamieson, ALAS attorneys who helped bring groundbreaking cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, and Holmen, who has been with GLSP since its founding.
"Our board and staff were very excited about Kris' visit," said Gottlieb. "It put into perspective the wonderful accomplishments of legal aid lawyers in Atlanta and legal services across the South."
For information on Rationing Justice from Louisiana State University Press, 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.)
LaFaye Johnson and her three children were living in a motel room after being evicted from their apartment. Homelessness seemed almost certain if they could not find an affordable home.
Johnson, 30, never had trouble paying the rent on her old apartment, thanks to her job at McDonald's. When she fell on the job and hurt her knee, she missed some work and could only work part-time when she returned. The loss of work meant she could not afford her $635 monthly rent. She fell behind, and was eventually evicted.
Johnson's plight was featured in a recent series of articles in The Tennessean on affordable housing in Nashville. After the articles ran, good Samaritans came out of the woodwork to try and help Johnson and her family, including the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands. The organization helped Johnson apply for a Section 8 voucher, which was accepted by a landlord who had also read about Johnson's plight. She and her children now live in a new three bedroom apartment with one-and-a-half bathrooms.
"I never would have imagined being in a home like this," she told The Tennessean. "I can rest comfortably now," she said.
For more of LaFaye Johnson's story, click here.