On October 16, the U.S. Senate voted 75-19 to approve the FY 2008 Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies (CJS) funding bill, providing a $41.4 million or 12 percent budget increase for the Legal Services Corporation. LSC would receive a total of $390 million, approaching the $400 million received in FY 1995, the high-water mark in the Corporation's 33-year history.
"Thank God for legal services lawyers," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski during a debate over LSC funding.
"In 1996 came a horrendous and Draconian cut," said CJS Subcommittee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. "If we had kept funding at the 1980 levels, just with inflation, Legal Services would be funded at $757 million [today]."
Representing low-income Americans facing foreclosure and battered women are among the top priorities of LSC-funded programs. "We have all read in recent months about the vast increase in the number of people losing their homes because of foreclosures and the scandal in the subprime lending market," said Senator Tom Harkin, D-IA. "Many of these people are low income, and they are going to need help from Legal Services because they will not be able to afford an attorney."
An amendment offered by Senator John Thune, R-S.D., defeated by a bipartisan vote of 61-32, the first recorded Senate vote on LSC funding since 1995, would have reduced LSC's Senate appropriation by $20 million and increased funding for prosecution of violent crimes on Indian reservations by the same amount. Opponents of the amendment observed that fighting crime on Indian reservations is a noble goal, but cutting LSC's budget would be counterproductive.
"Recent studies have shown that the only public service that reduces domestic abuse in the long term is women's access to legal aid, the very assistance this amendment would drastically curtail," Harkin said.
"Thank God for Legal Services lawyers," Mikulski said. Citing her own experience as a Baltimore social worker, she observed, "One of the best ways to really help fight crime is in those early interventions we can do with families." In addition to helping women and children escape abusive situations, she noted, Legal Services lawyers aid "victims of predatory lending or other schemes and other scams" and "[victims of] unscrupulous landlords of lead-saturated houses."
In June, the U.S. House of Representatives approved an 8 percent or $28 million increase in LSC's budget for next year.
LSC President Helaine M. Barnett said, "I would like to thank Senator Mikulski, Senator Harkin, and all the other Senators and Representatives who have worked so hard to make this increase possible. It will enable LSC-funded programs to provide vitally needed civil legal assistance to thousands more eligible low-income individuals all across America."
To read the press release in its entirety, click here.
U.S. Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR)
U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR)
Oregon Senators Gordon Smith (R) and Ron Wyden (D) have announced their support for the $41.4 million increase recently approved by the U.S. Senate for LSC's FY 2008 budget.
"At the foundation of our democracy is every American's right to representation. Congress created the LSC to protect this right," said Senator Smith in an October 22 press release. "For years the LSC has suffered from scarce funding. It's time for Congress to provide the LSC with the financial support they need and deserve to effectively provide legal services to helpless Americans. Everyone deserves to have access to the legal system, not just those who can afford it."
"The poor and disadvantaged deserve equal representation, and the Legal Services Corporation has done an outstanding job over the years of providing that service," said Senator Wyden. "This additional funding will help Legal Services to protect and defend more Oregonians in need of good representation."
Senators Smith and Wyden are long-time supporters of increased federal funding for civil legal aid programs. For years they have co-signed letters to Senate appropriators requesting budget increases for LSC, and have consistently spoken about the importance of access to justice for all Americans.
To read the press release in its entirety, click here.
On October 17-18, LSC President Helaine M. Barnett attended the first regional Mountain States Project Directors meeting, held in Salt Lake City, Utah. The meeting brought together Executive Directors and senior staff from LSC-funded programs in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming. LSC initiated and planned the meeting, which was modeled after the successful Midwest and Southeast Project Directors meetings. Anne Milne, Executive Director of Utah Legal Services arranged logistics for the event, including a reception hosted by the law firm of Holland and Hart.
Barnett opened the meeting with an update on developments at LSC, which was followed by discussions on LSC's Performance Criteria, pro bono enhancement, recruitment and retention, and other issues unique to the attendees' service areas. Six of the eight states have significant rural areas and are served by statewide programs. Evora Thomas, Stephanie Edelstein and Guy Lecault from LSC's Office of Program Performance helped moderate the discussions.
From the positive response received from the two dozen attendees, it is anticipated that the Mountain States Regional Project Directors Meeting will become an annual event.
LSC's Board of Directors will meet in Portland, Maine, on October 26-27 for its last meeting of 2007.
The meeting will include a visit to Pine Tree Legal Services (PTLA, which will celebrate its fortieth anniversary during the Board's visit, and meetings of all four Board committees. The Provisions for the Delivery of Legal Services Committee will meet to continue its discussion on recruitment and retention issues at legal aid programs. The Operations and Regulations Committee will discuss whether to adopt additional enforcement mechanisms, referred to as lesser sanctions, to ensure LSC-funded programs comply with federal laws and LSC regulations. The Finance Committee will consider resolutions to adopt a temporary operating budget for 2008, to authorize basic field grants upon approval of LSC's FY 2008 budget, and to adopt LSC's FY 2009 budget request.
For more information on LSC's Board of Directors, click here.
Registration has opened for LSC's 2007 Technology Initiative Grant (TIG) conference, to be held in Austin, Texas, on January 31-February 2, 2008.
The annual TIG Conference serves as the official launch of projects for the current round of TIG recipients. As always, current year grant recipients are required to attend, and do so at no charge. The conference is also open to the public, and everyone is encouraged to attend.
This year's Conference will feature three different tracks:
LSC's Technology Initiative Grant program funds innovative projects that promote full access and high-quality legal representation through the use of technology.
To register for the 2007 TIG Conference, 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 44 the 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.
Press Release, Center for Responsible Lending – October 12, 2007
As the nation's foreclosure epidemic continues to worsen, the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) has formed the Institute for Foreclosure Legal Assistance (IFLA) to support groups giving legal representation to families facing foreclosure and financial ruin because of abusive subprime mortgages. The National Association of Consumer Advocates (NACA) will manage the project, which recognizes that one of the biggest barriers families face to avoid losing their homes is the lack of access to quality legal services.
The Institute, launched with a $15 million grant from investment management firm Paulson & Co. Inc., will provide funding and training to organizations that help homeowners negotiate alternatives to foreclosure. The majority of the funds will be grants to support direct legal assistance to borrowers in 10 or more states to fight foreclosure, predatory lenders and abusive loan servicers. It will do this primarily by providing money to top non-profit legal-aid groups and law school clinics.
The Institute should be up and running within a few months. It will be headquartered in Washington, DC at the offices of CRL and NACA.
To read the press release in its entirety, click here.
New policies aimed at boosting Interest on Lawyer Trust Account (IOLTA) funding for legal services programs have been adopted in Alabama and California.
Alabama's Supreme Court, by a unanimous decision, recently made participation in the state's IOLTA program mandatory for all of the state's 15,400 licensed attorneys. The rule change becomes effective January 1, 2008, and will make Alabama the 35th state to adopt a mandatory IOLTA program. Previously, Alabama attorneys could opt out of the program. Tracy Daniel, Executive Director of the Alabama State Bar's Law Foundation, which administers the IOLTA program, told the Huntsville Times that she expects IOLTA funding to double under the new rule. The foundation has already distributed more than $800,000 in grants this year, according to the Times.
On October 10, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill (AB 1723) requiring IOLTA funds to be placed in accounts at eligible financial institutions that pay interest rates on these accounts comparable to accounts of similar size. Governor Schwarzenegger said in a signing statement, "Expanding the reach of legal services for the poor will not only benefit those who are able to obtain legal assistance, but will also benefit the courts by alleviating some of the burdens imposed by litigants who are currently forced to represent themselves." Similar rule changes in other states are predicted to double or even triple IOLTA revenue.
IOLTA accounts are used by lawyers to hold their client's funds in trust. These accounts earn very little interest individually, but can generate millions of dollars a year when pooled together on a statewide level. Traditionally, the interest is collected by the state and distributed to legal services programs. Nationwide, IOLTA funding generates tens of millions dollars a year for LSC-funded legal services programs.
To read "Alabama Supreme Court Makes IOLTA Participation Mandatory" in The Huntsville Times, click here.
For more information on California's rule change, read "Governor Signs Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts Bill" in The Metropolitan News-Enterprise.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has awarded a total of $2.3 million in grants to 11 LSC-funded programs in eight states to fight housing discrimination. The individual grants range from $100,000 to $275,000, and were distributed by HUD's Fair Housing Initiative Program (FHIP), which assists victims of housing discrimination and conducts tests of properties suspected of violating fair housing laws. According to a HUD press release, grants awarded under the FHIP will be used to investigate allegations of housing discrimination, educate the public and the housing industry about their rights and responsibilities under the Fair Housing Act, and work to promote equal housing opportunities.
The 11 LSC-funded programs who received grants are:
To view the complete list of grants, click here.
For more information on HUD's Fair Housing Initiative Program, click here.
Press Release, South Jersey Legal Services – October 18, 2007
Douglas Gershuny, new Executive Director of South Jersey Legal Services, standing in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Board of Trustees of South Jersey Legal Services has named Douglas E. Gershuny as its new Executive Director.
South Jersey Legal Services provides free civil legal services to low-income people residing in Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem Counties. There are nearly 400,000 people eligible for assistance living in the seven counties served by SJLS.
Gershuny has served as SJLS' Deputy Director for Litigation & Advocacy since 2003, and previously served as Executive Director of Cape-Atlantic Legal Services, which merged with Camden Regional Legal Services to form SJLS in 2003.
Gershuny is a graduate of Richard Stockton College of New Jersey and City University of New York Law School. He resides in Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey with his wife Alice and their daughter Rachel.
The Chicago Bar Foundation (CBF) has chosen four attorneys from LSC-funded programs to receive the inaugural Sun-Times Fellowships, which provide $50,000 in loan repayment assistance over five years.
The fellowships are funded through a $2 million cy pres award--left-over funds from class-action settlements--from a case involving Chicago's Sun-Times newspaper. According to the CBF, it created the fellowships to address an emerging crisis in the legal aid community: staggering debt loads that prevent recent law school graduates from seeking employment in legal aid or public interest law organizations.
The 2007 Chicago Bar Foundation Sun-Times Fellows. From left to right, Zenaida A. Alonzo, Janel L. Freeman, Julie M. Harcum, Kathryn Socha, and Rachel A. Heaston. Photo credit John J. Kim/Chicago Sun-Times.
The Fellows were selected through a rigorous selection process and all demonstrate a commitment to public interest work, academic achievement in law school, and outstanding character and integrity.
The Fellows are:
Zenaida A. Alonzo of Chicago's Legal Advocacy to Incarcerated Mothers, also received a fellowship.
For more information, click here.
Ashley Wiltshire, former Legal Aid Society Director and ANE Chief Executive Officer of the Year.
The Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands received two Salute to Excellence Awards from the Center for Nonprofit Management at its awards dinner on October 17. The two awards--for Excellence in Communication and for Chief Executive Officer of the Year--were each accompanied by a cash prize of $4,000.
Ashley Wiltshire, who led the Legal Aid Society for 31 years before retiring in June, received the CEO of the Year Award for his efforts to raise the community's awareness of legal aid. "Im proud to have been a part of this great organization for 37 years," he said. "It has been an honor and privilege."
In announcing the communications award, Executive Director Gary Housepian acknowledged the foresight of his predecessor, Ashley Wiltshire and of the board of directors. In recent years the Board had explicitly challenged the staff to raise the Legal Aid Society's profile in the community. In response to this challenge, Legal Aid hired an experienced communications firm, the Bradford Group, to advise it and help it carry out a more consistent, deliberate communication strategy. "Having this kind of professional guidance," Housepian explained, "has made all the difference."
The Bradford Group meets with Legal Aid leaders and development staff every other week to discuss developments, help identify cases and activities to publicize and client stories for media and funders. They also helped the Legal Aid Society to produce a high-quality annual report, which recognizes Legal Aid's work and its supporters. Finally, the group has stimulated the public recognition of events and partnerships that keep the staff and organization in the public eye. The Center for Nonprofit Management Award, which is highly prized in the Nashville region, was a direct result of the professionalization of Legal Aid's communications strategy.
(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.)
Jackie was a 40-year-old mother of two when she first sought help from Legal Aid of West Virginia. For seven years, she had been married to a man who was extremely controlling and physically abusive. Legal Aid of West Virginia worked with Jackie to secure a protective order against her abusive husband and represented her in the divorce.
During the divorce proceedings, Jackie learned that her husband was a bigamist--he had been married to several other women while married to her. The divorce was soon finalized, and Jackie's husband was forced to pay spousal support. In lieu of child support, Jackie's husband claimed their two children as dependents so they could receive part of his Social Security disability benefits.
Some years later Jackie began receiving letters from the Social Security Administration demanding repayment of more than $20,000. Social Security had learned that Jackie's ex-husband was working sporadically while receiving disability benefits. The letter explained that since her children were receiving some of that ill-gotten money, it was her responsibility to repay it.
Legal Aid of West Virginia helped Jackie appeal Social Security's decision, arguing that she was without fault and did not have the means to repay the large sum of money. After several months of conversation, Social Security agreed to waive the entire overpayment.
Upon hearing the news, Jackie said, "Legal Aid has given my girls and me our life back! I thank God every day for you!"