Requests by low-income Americans for help with foreclosure and unemployment problems are increasing, officials at the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) said at a House Appropriations Subcommittee hearing today on LSC's budget request for Fiscal Year 2011.
LSC-funded programs report that the number of people coming to their legal aid offices has significantly increased, LSC Interim President Victor M. Fortuno testified. Just as the weak economy has severely impacted the poor, it has placed a great strain on the resources that support legal aid programs. Non-federal funding for legal aid programs is declining, and LSC-funded programs are concerned about their ability to provide increased services in 2010 and 2011, he said.
Fortuno reported that fifty-four million Americans, including 18.5 million children, are eligible for LSC-funded civil legal assistance. He explained that "the justice gap is a harsh reality in our nation and the downturn in our economy has dramatically increased the number of people needing civil legal services."
Interim President Fortuno and LSC Board Chairman Frank B. Strickland testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies. The Subcommittee is chaired by Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.); Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) is the ranking member.
LSC published an interim final rule and request for comments ( 50k) in the Federal Register on February 11 to repeal the Corporation's regulation that prohibits LSC grantees from claiming, collecting and retaining attorneys' fees.
The rule, which becomes effective on March 15, permits LSC grantees to make claims for attorneys' fees in any case in which the award of fees is permitted by law. LSC grant recipients also will be permitted to collect and retain attorneys' fees whenever such fees are awarded to them.
The rule notes that LSC has adopted a policy under which it will exercise its enforcement discretion and not take enforcement action against any recipient that filed a claim for or collected and retained attorneys' fees between the period of December 16, 2009, and March 15, 2010.
LSC has issued a program letter ( 27k) to LSC grantees containing additional guidance on the matter.
LSC's action is in keeping with the intent of Congress, which repealed the statutory prohibition on attorneys' fees in the bill containing LSC's fiscal year 2010 appropriations bill. President Obama signed the bill into law on December 16, 2009.
A web-based program to help low-income Americans prepare legal documents has a new name-LawHelp Interactive-and improved software to allow easier creation of court forms and legal documents.
Every year, thousands of low-income Americans find themselves in court as unrepresented litigants because they cannot afford a lawyer or because legal aid programs lack adequate resources and cannot represent them. They must navigate a confusing and stressful system as they face the potential loss of their home, income or even children.
The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) has been funding self-help document preparation initiatives since 2000 through grants to Ohio State Legal Services under its Technology Initiative Grants (TIG) program. The launch of LawHelp Interactive, www.lawhelpinteractive.org, was announced at the 10th annual TIG Conference, recently held in Austin, Texas.
The web-based program had previously been called National Public Automated Documents Online (NPADO), and has been managed and operated by Pro Bono Net since 2006. The 10-year-old, national nonprofit group, which works to increase access to justice, oversaw the name change to LawHelp Interactive, the site redesign, and the installation of the upgraded software that makes it easier for users to create their legal documents and for the site to expand its services.
A February 19 article in the New York Times highlights new research on the toll evictions take on residents of poor, inner-city neighborhoods.
The research was conducted by a University of Wisconsin sociologist and is based on trends in Milwaukee's rental market from 2002. The research shows that evictions were disproportionately higher in African-American neighborhoods and that black women, who are often single mothers, were particularly affected.
"Just as incarceration has become typical in the lives of poor black men, eviction has become typical in the lives of poor black women," said Matthew Desmond, who conducted the research.
The article discusses some causes of evictions-unemployment, failure of public benefits to keep up with the rising cost of housing, landlords looking to evict tenants that file complaints with city agencies-and highlights how their impact can extend beyond housing to affect employment, debt, credit ratings and more.
Representing tenants facing eviction is a core activity of LSC-funded programs. The article offers one such example, in which an attorney from the Milwaukee-based Legal Action of Wisconsin helped delay eviction for a woman whose rent money was stolen from her.
Legal Aid of West Virginia and a local network of family health centers have launched a medical-legal partnership aimed at helping low-income West Virginians overcome legal problems that contribute to poor health.
The partnership is based on a model developed by a doctor at the Boston Medical Center in the early ´90s, and has since been replicated throughout the country. Nearly 40 LSC-funded legal aid programs participate in medical-legal partnerships in 25 states.
In West Virginia, a legal aid attorney works on-site at the health centers a few days a week providing advice and representation to clients and training medical providers to identify legal issues that may be impacting the health of their patients.
"It was a perfect partnership opportunity for Legal Aid of West Virginia," said Adrienne Worthy, executive director of Legal Aid of West Virginia.
The partnership was highlighted in a recent article in The West Virginia Record. For more information about medical-legal partnerships, visit the website of the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership.
Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida is representing an elderly couple, the Cooks, who are facing eviction from their mobile home over their dog, Lucy, a chihuahua and Boston Terrier mix the couple adopted on the advice of three doctors, who said a pet could help with Ms. Cook's depression and Alzheimer's.
Though the mobile home park in which the Cooks live has a strong no-pets policy, their legal aid lawyer says the federal Fair Housing Act requires the park to make "reasonable accommodations" that would allow the Cooks to keep Lucy, who serves as an "assistive aid" and is not merely a pet.
The Cooks say that Lucy has helped in ways that medicines and doctors could not. "We weren't interested in breaking the rules, but if it could help...I'd do anything," said Mr. Cook. "That dog has helped her where pills and the therapist really didn't."
Owners of the mobile home park say that if they do not stand firm on the no-pets policy, other residents wanting a prohibited pet will simply press their doctors for recommendations.
Legal aid staff say that a positive resolution for the Cooks appears likely.
Darren Barbee, Fort Worth Star-Telegram – February 7, 2010
Billy Ray, 59, needed a divorce, but he had no money for a lawyer and he can't read or write.
Nevertheless, the attorney who represented him was from one of the largest and most prestigious law firms in Tarrant County: Cantey Hanger. Over its more than 125 years, the firm has counted Fortune 500 companies, hospitals, local utilities and other institutions among its clients.
About a year ago, a judge asked Billy Ray, a former Fort Worth city employee, some questions and then granted the divorce. To protect his privacy, the Star-Telegram isn't fully identifying him.
"I don't think I could have done any better if I had went and hired me a lawyer," he said. "I doubt I could, because they were so nice."
His attorney from Cantey Hanger, Philip Vickers, worked the case pro bono after volunteering for the Fort Worth branch of Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas, which helps the poor in legal disputes.
Vickers' enthusiasm for helping out-he finished one case, then took on another without hesitation-was contagious. Now, 16 Cantey Hanger attorneys have agreed to accept at least two pro bono cases each from Legal Aid-the largest such partnership in the nonprofit's 59-year history.
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.
When her husband passed away, 81-year-old "Danita" was forced to make a living for herself with what little means she had at her disposal-her husband's Social Security death benefits, food stamps, and her earnings as a very part-time housekeeper. Though she and her husband owned their own home, they never earned enough to maintain even a small savings account.
Growing up African-American in the Deep South, Danita was not allowed to attend school and never learned to read or write. She relied entirely on her husband to pay bills, read mail and attend to all the family business. Following his death, she relied on friends and family for help.
One day, a relative opened a piece of mail containing a default judgment against Danita for over $8,000. She was shocked. Except for the mortgage on their house, Danita and her husband had never incurred debt and always lived within their means. She had no idea how she could owe such an amount, how she could ever hope to pay it, why she had no knowledge of the alleged unpaid bill and why she had not learned of the suit until that moment.
Luckily, one of the homes she cleaned belonged to a woman who worked for a local judge, who put her in contact with a lawyer for the Acadiana Legal Services Corporation, based in Lafayette, Louisiana. Realizing time was short, the attorney immediately prepared and filed a successful motion for a new trial and transferred the case to the program's litigation unit. Though Danita's income was safe from garnishment, the equity in her home put it at risk for seizure and sale to satisfy the debt.
During preparation for the trial, Danita's attorney learned that the suit involved a credit card allegedly issued to and used by Danita and that her account had been bought by a third-party debt collector. Subsequent discovery showed that the debt collector could produce no records or documentation connecting Danita with account in any way except for her name and address
Danita wept when her legal aid lawyer called to tell her that the debt collector had given up, dismissed the suit, and that her home was safe. She never found out who applied for the credit card in her name, but suspected one of her relatives who she had trusted to help her.
In total, the legal aid staff spent over 80 hours to save Danita's home. At current market rates, according to the program's estimate, this work would have cost her at least $10,000 had she been able to pay a private attorney by the hour, more than her total income for a year and a half.