Nearly a million poor people who seek help for civil legal problems, such as foreclosures and domestic violence, will be turned away this year by the nation's largest nonprofit legal aid network because of insufficient resources, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) projects in a report released on Sept. 30.
The report is the Corporation's second analysis of the "justice gap" in America-the difference between the level of civil legal assistance available and the level that is necessary to meet the legal needs of low-income individuals and families.
For every client served by LSC programs, another person who seeks help is turned away, the report concludes. The conclusion reaffirms a 2005 report by LSC that also found 50 percent of potential clients seeking help from LSC-funded programs were not served because of a lack of resources. The report also includes new data on unrepresented litigants in state courts.
The report's conclusion calls for more pro bono assistance from private attorneys and more funding from federal, state, local and private sources.
"This nation is built on the promise of equal justice under law, but there is a justice gap in America. We must do more to close the justice gap and provide equal access to justice for all Americans, regardless of their economic status," LSC President Helaine M. Barnett said.
Read media coverage of the report:
The Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators have adopted a resolution calling for increased LSC funding to meet the growing demand for legal services.
The resolution describes LSC as "a critical component of the national access to justice system" and notes that the need for legal services "has dramatically risen" partly due to increased unemployment, foreclosures, debt issues, and problems accessing medical care resulting from the financial crisis.
The resolution also states that the recession is sapping funding from state and local sources and therefore calls for "increased federal funding on a continuing basis for LSC to better meet the demand for legal services and ensure access to justice for all."
The Conference of Chief Justices was founded in 1949 as a means for the states' highest judicial officers to discuss issues of importance to state courts and to work towards improving the administration of justice. The Conference of State Court Administrators was established in 1955 and is dedicated to the development of a more just, effective and efficient system of justice.
The Finance Committee of LSC's Board of Directors has approved Management's recommendation of $516.5 million for the Corporation's Fiscal 2011 budget request to Congress.
The Committee approved the recommendation at its Sept. 21 meeting at LSC headquarters. The full Board is expected to consider and act on the request at its Oct. 31 meeting in Philadelphia.
More than 95 percent of the total request would be distributed directly to LSC grantees to support the provision of free civil legal aid to low-income Americans, to fund technology projects that increase access to justice, and to provide loan repayment assistance for legal aid attorneys. The remainder of the request would support increased grants oversight by the Corporation and fund LSC's Office of Inspector General.
The request is predicated on LSC's recognition of the continuing justice gap and the growing need for civil legal aid due to the recession.
LSC will continue to operate at its Fiscal 2009 funding level of $390 million through Oct. 31, according to the continuing appropriations resolution passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama on Sept. 30.
The resolution keeps most government programs, including LSC, running at last year's levels while Congress works to approve the 12 annual spending measures for Fiscal 2010, which began on Oct. 1.
LSC funding is contained in the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies appropriations bill, which has been passed by the House but not the Senate. The House approved $440 million for LSC in June while the Senate Appropriations Committee has approved $400 million.
The Senate bill would continue existing limitations on the use of federal funds but would lift restrictions on the use of non-federal funds except in litigation involving abortion and cases involving prisoners. The House bill would continue existing limitations on LSC funds and non-LSC funds, but would remove the restriction on the ability to claim, collect or retain attorneys' fees, regardless of the funding source.
The two chambers will have to meet in conference to resolve differences in their versions of the bill before sending a final measure to the White House for the president's signature.
The Board of Directors of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) elected Michael D. McKay, a member of the Board since 2003, as vice chairman on Sept. 21.
Mr. McKay, who chairs the Finance Committee of the LSC Board, is a founding partner of McKay Chadwell, PLLC, in Seattle. From 1989 to 1993, he served as the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington, in Seattle.
Lillian R. BeVier, a University of Virginia law professor who had served as vice chairman, resigned Aug. 24 after serving six years on the Board. At the Sept. 21 meeting, the Board approved a resolution honoring Professor BeVier for her distinguished service and tireless efforts on behalf of equal access to justice in the nation.
Twelve representatives from the Japan Federation of Bar Associations visited LSC headquarters on Sept. 22 as part of the group's week-long mission to learn about the American legal aid system.
LSC President Helaine M. Barnett welcomed the delegation and gave brief remarks. John Constance, LSC's director of government relations and public affairs, and Treefa Aziz, LSC's government affairs representative, briefed the group about the history, structure and mission of the Corporation and its role in the overall legal aid system.
Questions from the group addressed issues ranging from LSC's relationship with Congress and the rest of the Federal government to the differences between legal aid in America and in Europe.
In addition to visiting LSC, the group toured the offices of the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau and other legal aid programs in Washington, D.C., and New York.
Learn more about the Japan Federation of Bar Associations at www.nichibenren.or.jp/en/.
Mary Fuchs, The Star Ledger – September 28, 2009
At least one-third of low-income residents in New Jersey-461,500 people-face civil legal troubles every year.
But only 20 percent of those who need legal help actually get it, according to a report [released on Sept. 28].
The report, by Legal Services of New Jersey, a nonprofit that gives legal aid to low-income residents, says the tough economy is making matters worse as more people are squeezed by more legal problems and have no money for lawyers.
"This unaddressed need for civil legal assistance for the economically disadvantaged is a major challenge for the state," the report says. "All New Jerseyans are expected to use the civil justice system to resolve their disputes and grievances, and many are compelled to by legal process."
The report, which surveyed 2,846 adults randomly selected from households across the state, is the first conducted by the group since 2002. In that time, the number of low-income residents in need of legal assistance remained about the same, but the average number of legal issues they face increased by almost 30 percent.
"It's not that New Jersey is the worst by any means," said Melville D. Miller, president of Legal Services, which advised and represented 67,000 low-income residents last year. "But when four out of five people can't get help when they need it, we have a lot of trouble."
Trevor Maxwell, Portland Press Herald – September 26, 2009
The state's six nonprofit legal aid providers are struggling to meet the needs of Maine's poor and elderly, as the demand for legal services continues to rise and funding for the agencies drops.
Over a two-month period this spring, the six agencies received about 6,400 requests for legal help, ranging from assistance in foreclosure proceedings to help with child custody cases.
They were able to fully meet the needs in only 1,500 of those cases-fewer than one in four. The other 4,900 received either limited help or no help at all, according to figures released [Sept. 24].
"Having it in black and white confronts you with the reality that the folks who come to us for help already know," said Nan Heald, executive director of Pine Tree Legal Assistance, Maine's largest legal aid provider.
"Twenty-five percent is a depressingly similar percentage to what was reported back in 1990," Heald said. She noted that most low-income Mainers who could benefit from legal assistance never ask for it.
Brian Wargo, Las Vegas Sun – September 18, 2009
The slumping Las Vegas economy has increased demand for free legal services and stretched the resources of agencies trying to provide those services.
Nevada Legal Services, the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada and Senior Citizens Law Project have reported many more requests and say it's hard to meet the demand.
"It is overwhelming," said Lynn Etkins, development director of Legal Aid Center. "Our lobby is filled with clients ranging from victims of domestic violence to people losing their homes and jobs. With the economy and layoffs, we have a lot more people in the community (who need) our services."
This year has seen a 25 percent increase in placements with pro bono attorneys. A consumer hotline has received 14 percent more calls than a year ago, she said. Demand has increased for help with divorce, consumer credit, bankruptcy and other issues, Etkins said.
"We don't see any letup with the economic crisis as far as clients are concerned," Etkins said. "We just try to keep up and help the greatest number we can."
Through the end of June, Nevada Legal Services had closed 2,600 cases, about 1,000 more than through the same six-month period in 2008.
"With the economy, the number of people coming through our doors is skyrocketing," Executive Director AnnaMarie Johnson said. "It's terrible to say but when the economy is bad, our business is good and we don't see any slacking off in the demand for our services."
Legal Aid of Western Ohio and the non-LSC-funded Advocates for Basic Legal Equality will host the Community & Client Advocacy Day on Oct. 2 to celebrate the opening of their new headquarters, the Center for Equal Justice, in downtown Toledo.
The event will bring together nearly 20 human service organizations and government agencies in one place to conduct seminars on debt management and foreclosure prevention, provide advice and guidance to senior citizens, assist with filling out official documents and other paperwork, and more.
The legal aid programs will host a dinner reception on Oct. 1 to thank the major donors who played a significant role in raising the $6.8 million dollars that paid for the construction of the building.
The new Center for Equal Justice will serve as the headquarters for the delivery of legal services to low-income Ohioans in fully one-third of the entire state. It will serve as a community resource for the development, training, and support of clients, volunteers, board members, and other non-profits.
LSC President Helaine M. Barnett wrote to Kevin. C. Mulder, executive director of Legal Aid of Western Ohio, to offer her congratulations on the eve of the celebration and to thank the program for its years of dedication to increasing access to justice.
"LSC thanks Legal Aid of Western Ohio and all of its supporters for their dedication and commitment to serving the poor and most vulnerable among us," she said. "This program and its supporters are making a meaningful difference in the individual lives of thousands of clients and in the overall health of this region. We hope that through federal, state, and local partnerships and increased pro bono contributions, this nation's promise of equal access to justice will one day not only be for some, but will truly be for all."
Learn more about the Center for Equal Justice at www.building4justice.org.
There is less than one month to go before the week-long National Pro Bono Celebration begins on Oct. 25.
Sponsored by the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, the celebration will encompass more than 100 events in nearly 40 states and Puerto Rico dedicated to promoting the good work of volunteer lawyers and encouraging more members of the legal profession to donate their time and money to those in need.
Already, San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, Delaware's House of Representatives, the Governors of Alabama and Massachusetts, the City of Demopolis, Ala., and the State Bar of California have taken official action to recognize the celebration.
For more information, visit www.celebrateprobono.org.
Legal aid is about helping ordinary people with real-life problems. Client stories illustrate the day-to-day struggles-and victories-of poor Americans seeking justice under law.
Close to 30 families in a downtrodden community on the outskirts of San Juan this week finally had their electricity and tap water utilities connected after more than a year of contentious battles with government agencies. The families of the Juan Domingo community-now that they have electricity and running water-organized an activity to celebrate their victory, to which Puerto Rico Legal Services (PRLS) attorneys, who were crucial in securing both utility services, were invited.
The community's problems began when Puerto Rico's agency in charge of administering permits first questioned the community's property and land titles, then the Puerto Rican housing agency demanded plumbing and electrical permits. The government, however, had previously promised that the new social-interest walk-ups in Juan Domingo-located in the midst of high-end housing developments-would come with all the utilities in order for the families to move in immediately.
Puerto Rico Legal Services attorneys from the Bayamn Service Center-led by Claribel Gascot and Robert Laboy-obtained all the required documents and made sure that no new pretexts came up for denying the poor families these basic utilities. The residents in Juan Domingo had been using clandestine electrical and tap water connections until the matter was legally resolved, but those types of illegal connections posed a serious hazard to all the families and their kids, said Nury Machuca, the community's leader and spokesperson.
Machuca said the efforts by PRLS staff were absolutely crucial to their victory. She said the best way for the community to thank them was by having a celebration in which both the electricity and tap water recently obtained would be put to good use.
Learn more about Puerto Rico Legal Services at www.servicioslegales.org.