Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is the new chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, the Senate panel responsible for conducting oversight of the Legal Services Corporation. He replaces Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who died last month. Senator Michael B. Enzi (R-Wyo.) remains the committee's ranking member.
Harkin is a former legal aid lawyer who is passionately committed to ensuring equal access to justice for all Americans. In March, he introduced the Civil Access to Justice Act of 2009 (S. 718), a bill to reauthorize the Legal Services Corporation and increase its annual authorized funding level to $750 million. He has also led efforts to secure increased funding for legal aid programs following Hurricane Katrina and for programs that faced budget cuts following the 2000 census.
Before his election to Congress in 1974, Harkin was a staff attorney for Polk County Legal Aid, a predecessor to the LSC-funded Iowa Legal Aid. His service there earned him a spot in the legal aid program's Hall of Fame in 2005.
Poverty statistics released by the U.S. Census Bureau on Sept. 10 show that nearly 54 million Americans qualified for LSC-funded legal aid in 2008-about three million more than the year before and the largest number in LSC history.
The number represents almost 18 percent of all Americans in 2008, a nearly one percent increase from 2007 and the highest percentage since 1996. The number includes 18.5 million children and 20.7 million adult women. Both groups increased by about one million from 2007.
Eligibility for LSC services is defined as those living at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty level. The percentage of Americans living at 100 percent of poverty increased by .7 percent from 2007 to 2008-"the first statistically significant annual increase since 2004," according to the bureau.
The data was released in conjunction with the bureau's annual report on Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States.
The Legal Services Corporation joins President Obama, members of Congress and the Department of Justice in recognizing the 15th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which was signed into law on Sept. 13, 1994.
President Obama issued a Presidential Proclamation on the 14th recognizing the law as the first comprehensive, national response to domestic violence and calling upon "men and women of all ages, communities, organizations, and all levels of government, to work in collaboration to end violence against women."
In Congress, the U.S. House of Representatives adopted a resolution (H. Res. 738) introduced by Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.) and sixteen other members recognizing the anniversary of the act, reaffirming support for its goals and recognizing the need for continuous, vigorous enforcement of its provisions.
The Department of Justice, whose Office of Violence Against Women (OVW) is responsible for implementing the act, issued a press release quoting Attorney General Eric Holder as saying, "The Violence Against Women Act forever changed the way this nation meets our responsibility to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. It has been an essential building block in the Justice Department's work to end violence against women."
LSC-funded legal aid programs continue to play an important role in the national effort to end domestic violence by helping victims divorce their abusers and establish financial independence, secure protective orders, obtain custody of children and more.
They are able to do this, in part, because of the Legal Assistance for Victims Grant Program administered by the OVW. Twenty-one LSC grantees received a total of nearly $9.5 million in grants from the program in 2008, more than half of the total funding distributed that year. LSC's legal aid programs received similar shares of the funding in past years.
"This funding makes a meaningful difference every day in the lives of domestic violence victims," said LSC President Helaine M. Barnett.
On Sept. 10, President Obama announced his intent to nominate Neil McBride to the board of directors of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the largest electric utility in the country.
McBride is the general counsel and a managing partner of the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands, a Nashville-based program serving the low-income residents of nearly 50 counties.
Created in the early 1930's as part of President Roosevelt's New Deal, the TVA serves nine million people in a seven-state region. As a federal utility, it also sets rates and conditions of service for its customers. It is governed by a part-time, nonpartisan, nine-member board of directors.
In 1978, McBride founded Rural Legal Services of Tennessee, which he led until 2002 when it merged with other legal aid programs to form the Legal Aid Society. Among other initiatives, Rural Legal Services promoted public participation in TVA decision making, improved energy efficiency programs for TVA customers and advocated for stronger environmental controls on TVA coal suppliers.
Reacting to the news of his nomination, McBride said, "I'm not the typical appointee to this kind of position. I would not have gotten over the first bar if this administration did not have a deep respect for the role of legal aid in this country. I hope that all legal aid staff can take some pride in the recognition that this nomination represents."
McBride is a member of the Tennessee Bar Association's House of Delegates and the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants. He will remain with the Legal Aid Society during his tenure on the TVA board. His appointment requires Senate confirmation.
Jerome Wright, Memphis Commercial Appeal – Sept. 13, 2009
Justice shouldn't come with a price tag.
The perception, however, is that those who can afford good legal representation tend to fare better in America's courtrooms. Depending on the type of case, that may or may not be true.
But there is one certainty. Millions of people across this nation cannot afford to hire legal representation to help them navigate the intricacies of family law, foreclosure and other housing issues, consumer matters and income-maintenance issues that involve helping people obtain government benefits or promised compensation from private employers.
Those numbers have been exacerbated by the nation's economic slowdown.
The Legal Services Corporation and 137 nonprofit legal aid programs, including Memphis Area Legal Services Inc., help balance the legal scales, at least in civil matters.
Alison Grant, The Plain Dealer – Sept. 10, 2009
Erin Simmons was on a fast upward trajectory.
The Kent native graduated with academic awards from Case Western Reserve University School of Law in the spring and landed a plum offer from the No. 1-grossing U.S. law firm, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.
But instead of launching her career in September as a Skadden [litigator] in Manhattan, Simmons will be handling family law cases at the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland.
Simmons, 26, is one of hundreds of new U.S. lawyers affected by fallout from the wavering economy as firms postpone the start date of incoming associates. The law firms are paying "go-away" stipends to tide over school-debt-burdened hires until they begin work. And they are encouraging the postponed hires to take public interest jobs between law school graduation and their new start dates.
At Legal Aid, meanwhile, economic hard times have triggered a flood of requests for unemployment- and foreclosure-related help. Yet the Cleveland society's budget, based on an interest rate-sensitive fund, has shrunk by 20 percent since 2007.
Andy Ross, Clarksdale Press Register – Sept. 8, 2009
It is hard to imagine how an agency such as the North Mississippi Rural Legal Services – which in recent years has been operating with the slimmest of resources – can trim down expenses, yet that is exactly what is happening after last month's announcement of a $620,000 budget cut.
Until July 31st of this year, a staff of some 40 persons at NMRLS's five offices provided legal services to an estimated 220,000-300,000 low-income Mississippians across 39 counties.
With the recent budget cut revelations, however, the NMRLS Board of Directors is currently considering how many of those 40 positions will be necessary to cut, according to executive director Ben Cole.
"We are running a program that is as lean as possible and when you get that kind of a cut you really don't have any other place to cut except for personnel so that's where we are," said Cole recently.
Pro Bono Net celebrated its 10th anniversary at an event in New York City on Sept. 15.
The New York City- and San Francisco-based nonprofit organization is dedicated to increasing access to justice throughout the nation by supporting the innovative use of technology for public-interest legal groups, working to increase pro bono participation among private lawyers and facilitating collaboration in the nonprofit legal community.
Pro Bono Net developed and operates a number of web-based platforms that provide powerful and sophisticated tools to legal aid and pro bono advocates, as well as low-income people. Funded in part by LSC's Technology Initiative Grants (TIG) Program, the group's award-winning LawHelp.org network hosts free, statewide legal assistance websites in 30 states and regions. Low-income people can use the sites to learn about their legal rights, download court forms and locate legal aid organizations in their area.
LSC's TIG Program also supports Pro Bono Net's National Legal Services Document Assembly Server, NPADO.org, a central location where legal aid programs can create and host automated legal forms that low-income people can access through the LawHelp sites.
Phyllis Holmen, executive director of the Georgia Legal Services Program, was one of four guest speakers at the event. She discussed how the tools developed by Pro Bono Net have been an invaluable resource for her program's staff attorneys and volunteers, and have even aided in the recruitment of new volunteers. The tools also offer resources for low-income individuals who qualify for legal aid but have cases that do not meet the program's priorities. They have also been useful in supporting new partnerships with courts and court-based law libraries, particularly in small counties with few resources.
"Pro Bono Net has been one of the Corporation's strongest partners in the development of statewide websites for the client community," says LSC President Helaine M. Barnett. "I congratulate them on reaching this milestone and look forward to continuing our work together to increase access to justice."
In addition to projects funded through the TIG Program, LSC and Pro Bono Net partnered to create KatrinaLegalAid.org, a website to help victims and legal advocates respond to Hurricane Katrina. The collaboration continued with the creation of the National Disaster Legal Aid site, DisasterLegalAid.org, which provides the same services in response to natural disasters all over the country.
LSC's Glenn Rawdon, who manages LSC's TIG Program, attended the anniversary celebration, along with representatives from a number of LSC-funded programs.
The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles will celebrate its 80th anniversary on Sept. 30 at a free symposium entitled, "Looking Back, Moving Forward: Legal Aid in Changing Times." The event will be hosted by the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles.
The symposium will celebrate LAFLA's 80 years of leadership and service to those with no access to civil justice and feature a discussion about the new realities facing low-income communities while examining the future of legal aid for the poor given the social and economic challenges confronting Los Angeles County.
Robert K. Rasmussen, dean of USC's Gould School of Law, will deliver the opening remarks. Other speakers will include former California Court of Appeals Judge Earl Johnson, Jr., State Assemblymember Mike Feuer, and Bruce Iwasaki, former LAFLA executive director, now a partner in the law firm of Lim, Ruger & Kim. A photo exhibit from some of the children of LAFLA's clients will be on display at the event.
Register by Sept. 25 to attend a training session on case planning and discovery sponsored by the Center for Legal Aid Education in Westminster, Mass., from Oct. 14-16.
The session will utilize small group sessions, interactive exercises, demonstrations and role playing to introduce new attorneys and paralegals to the basics of legal analysis, discovery planning and fact development.
Specific topics to be covered include legal and factual analysis, developing a theory of the case, planning formal and informal discovery, conducting depositions, compelling discovery, evidentiary issues and gathering evidence.
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.
"Joe" was a wheelchair-bound client of Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services who lived in a small, rural community with no full-service medical facilities.
The state provided him with transportation so he could get back and forth to medical appointments in surrounding communities that had the facilities he needed.
After a while, the state Department of Human Services (DHS) decided that Joe no longer needed the transportation services, arguing that his community offered wheelchair accessible buses he could use. The fact that he still would not be able to travel to the surrounding communities for his medical appointments did not seem to matter.
The legal aid program filed an appeal to a county court on Joe's behalf. The judge in the case reversed the agency's ruling, arguing that the legislature, in writing the law, would not have intended an "absurd" or "unreasonable" construction of its statute. The fact that Joe could travel within his community was irrelevant, the judge said, as he needed the transportation for services provided outside the community.
The judge ordered the state to resume providing transportation to Joe.
Note: The original version of this story appeared in Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services' 2008 Annual Report.