LSC Updates - April 23, 2009
Two-thirds of Americans favor federal funding to help those who need legal assistance, according to a survey commissioned by the American Bar Association.
The survey, conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of the ABA, found that 36 percent "strongly support" and 31 percent "somewhat support" federal funding to help Americans who need legal assistance. Twenty-eight percent were strongly or somewhat opposed, and 6 percent responded with "don't know" or declined to answer, according to the survey.
The vast majority of respondents expressed support for access to legal services and in having a nonprofit organization provide legal services "to assist those who could not otherwise afford legal help."
Asked "how important do you think it is that Americans have access to legal services and advice when they are in crisis," 88 percent offered positive responses. Forty-one percent said "extremely important," 27 percent said "very important," and 20 percent said "important."
Another survey question asked how strongly survey participants agreed or disagreed with this statement: "It is essential that a non-profit provider of legal services is available to assist those who could not otherwise afford legal help." In response, 88 percent expressed agreement with the statement-55 percent said they "strongly agree" and 33 percent said they "somewhat agree." Only 10 percent expressed disagreement with the statement, and 1 percent answered "don't know" or declined to respond.
The survey was conducted by telephone between April 1-5 among 1,016 U.S. adults. The ABA released the survey results on April 20, prior to the start of ABA Day activities in Washington.
The survey results were reported by the Associated Press, and the wire service's initial account incorrectly attributed the poll to LSC. The AP issued a correction making clear that the survey was commissioned by the ABA.
The American Bar Association is hosting "ABA Day in Washington" from April 21-23, an annual event that brings lawyers to the nation's capital to communicate with members of Congress about the legal profession's top priorities. Chief among them is funding for the Legal Services Corporation, which the ABA says is critical to helping low-income persons and families address their everyday legal problems, especially as the nationwide housing crisis continues to threaten owners and renters of foreclosed properties.
State bar associations have added their voices to the ABA's call for action. For the second year in a row, the National Conference of Bar Presidents, the National Association of Bar Executives, and the presidents from bar associations in 50 states, two U.S. territories and several national bars of color sent a letter to members of Congress requesting a fiscal 2010 funding increase for LSC.
"The low-income and disadvantaged Americans who depend on LSC-funded legal aid organizations include people facing wrongful foreclosure of their homes due to predatory lending and other consumer fraud; women and children victimized by domestic violence; veterans denied the benefits our country promised them; and many other vulnerable members of our communities," the group said in its letter.
"Whether these people have access to the legal help they need could mean the difference between shelter and homelessness; medical assistance and unnecessary physical suffering; food on a family's table and hunger; economic stability and bankruptcy; productive work and unemployment. The failure to resolve their basic legal issues causes even greater hardship for them and often leads to their reliance on other government programs."
The American Bar Association honored the Alabama Law Foundation and the Chicago Bar Foundation with Grassroots Advocacy Awards on April 22 during a reception at the Library of Congress held in connection with ABA Day in Washington. ABA President Tommy Wells presented the awards, which were accepted by Tracy Daniel, executive director of the Alabama Law Foundation, and Bob Glaves, executive director of the Chicago Bar Foundation. The Alabama Law Foundation is an affiliate of the state bar association founded in 1987. It provides grants, conducts advocacy and coordinates activities for organizations and individuals dedicated to ensuring access to the civil justice system for the state's poor. The Chicago Bar Foundation is the charitable arm of the city's bar association. It distributes grants, conducts advocacy, promotes pro bono and funds scholarships and fellowships to fulfill its mission to ensure that everyone in the Chicago metropolitan area has equal access to justice.
President Obama has announced his intent to nominate Laurie Mikva to serve on LSC's Board of Directors. Mikva served as a staff attorney at the Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation in Champaign, Ill., from 1993 to 2008, where she specialized in family law and domestic violence prevention. As chairman of the Foundation's Family Law Task Force, she oversaw the provision of family law services throughout the organization. She also helped establish the Domestic Violence Clinic at the University of Illinois College of Law. She previously served as an assistant public defender in Urbana, Ill., and worked in the Appellate Division of the Maryland Public Defender's Office. Mikva is currently a staff attorney in the Office of Legal Counsel at the Illinois Department of Employment Security.
The Legal Aid Society of Orange County opened California's first WE Connect Neighborhood Center on April 15, combining civil legal assistance with expanded information about social services and job opportunities.
The WE Connect center opened in Legal Resolutions, a walk-in, self-help center provided by the Legal Aid Society, and will provide information through the Internet, at www.weconnect.net. Persons from outside California can obtain information about social services and benefits in their area by clicking on the "Federal WEb Connector" link on the Web site.
Maria Shriver, California's First Lady, established the WE Connect website and was on hand April 15 for the opening of the first WE Connect center in Orange County. "This is a significant undertaking, bringing together Maria Shriver's interest in providing access to social services and benefits with the commitment of her father, Sargent Shriver, to ensure access to justice for low-income Americans," said Robert J. Cohen, executive director of the Legal Aid Society.
The American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession has selected LSC President Helaine M. Barnett as one of five winners of the 2009 Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award. Established in 1991, the award honors outstanding women lawyers who have achieved professional excellence in their area of specialty and have actively paved the way for others. It is named for Margaret Brent, the first woman lawyer in America. Brent arrived in the colonies in 1638 and was involved in 124 court cases in more than eight years, winning every case. In 1648, she formally demanded a vote and voice in the Maryland Assembly, which the governor denied. Previous award winners include Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Honorable Eleanor Holmes Norton of Washington, D.C., and Washington State legal aid leader Ada Shen-Jaffe. The award ceremony will take place at a luncheon on August 2 during the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago.
Former LSC President John P. O'Hara passed away at the age of 79 on April 16. O'Hara led the Corporation from 1991 until his retirement three years later. He worked on Capitol Hill for 24 years as counsel to a Congressional subcommittee responsible for investigating highway and aviation safety. Born in New York, O'Hara graduated from St. John's University in his home state and served in the Marine Corps during the Korean War. He later became an FBI agent working out of Charlotte and Baltimore. He received his law degree from the University of Baltimore in 1960. He is survived by his wife of 54 years, three daughters, six grandchildren and two siblings.
The Board of Directors of the Legal Services Corporation will meet in Portland, Ore., on April 24 and 25. The board will visit Legal Aid Services of Oregon, a statewide program, at its Portland office, and convene meetings of board committees.
Chief Justice Paul De Muniz of the Oregon Supreme Court and Gerry Gaydos, president of the Oregon State Bar Association, will speak at a luncheon reception on April 24. At the reception, lawyers George Galloway, Lisa Neal-Graves, Paul Saucy and Evans Van Buren and U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Elizabeth Perris will be honored for their pro bono work on behalf of clients of Legal Aid Services of Oregon.
In an op-ed published in the Seattle Times on April 8, former LSC President John McKay urged the Washington State legislature to maintain funding for civil legal aid in its 2009-2011 budget. The state senate's version of the spending plan would cut $4.7 million, or 20 percent, of current funding for legal aid-a reduction McKay said "would require dismantling the state-funded legal aid system, leaving more than 20,000 families without help for their most critical legal needs." The majority of the burden, he said, would fall on the LSC-funded Northwest Justice Project, a statewide organization that serves as the hub of Washington's legal aid network. The program is already reeling because of funding losses from Interest on Lawyers' Trust Accounts and is expecting a continued decline into the near future. "Unprecedented budget challenges and competing priorities present our state legislators with difficult choices. But ensuring justice for all is a core governmental responsibility that must be funded regardless of the state's budget situation," McKay said.
The Tennessee Supreme Court has announced the creation of a statewide Access to Justice Commission responsible for addressing the growing civil legal needs crisis in the state. The Commission is charged with developing strategies to solve the legal needs crisis, to foster collaboration among stakeholder and to educate the public and policymakers on the importance of meeting the civil legal needs of low-income Tennesseans. The ten-member Commission consists of private lawyers, a law school dean, leaders of private companies and a representative from a Memphis church. Janice Holder, Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court, said "I am confident that this very distinguished Commission will build on our efforts to date and will collaborate with other individuals and organizations to provide greater access to civil legal services to Tennesseans who are most in need."
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The Neighborhood Legal Services Program of the District of Columbia sponsored a free foreclosure defense training session, "Saving the Home that Jack and Jill Bought," for 50 private attorneys on March 25. Each of the trainees agreed to provide free legal assistance to two legal aid clients confronting foreclosure issues. The clients will be selected from the program's regular intake and from the group's monthly foreclosure defense clinics. Brenda Ford Harding, executive director of Neighborhood Legal Services, said, "The remarkable turnout for this training demonstrates the commitment of the Washington-area pro bono community to providing legal help to District of Columbia homeowners who are faced with the devastating loss of their homes through foreclosure." RealtyTrac, an organization that monitors foreclosure filings nationwide, listed the Washington, D.C. area as having the 23rd highest rate of foreclosures in the country for 2008.
The Poverty Law Section of the State Bar of Texas has honored three lawyers at LSC-funded programs for victories in recent, significant cases that have had a broad impact on low-income people throughout the state. Kevin Paul Dietz of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and John W. Kennedy of Legal Aid of Northwest Texas were recognized for their work representing families from the Yearning for Zion ranch run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Susanne C. Ser of Lone Star Legal Aid was honored for her efforts to help victims of Hurricane Ike obtain housing. Randall D. Chapman of the Texas Legal Services Center, which provides support services to the state's legal aid programs, and a state legislator also received awards.
Equal Justice Works Launches Online Resource Center
Equal Justice Works has launched an online resource center to help people benefit from the student debt relief provisions in the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, which takes effect on July 1. The Act includes two key provisions: one that will lower monthly payments on federally guaranteed student loans, and one that will cancel any remaining debt for public servants after ten years of public service employment, which includes service at legal aid organizations. The resource center provides a comprehensive overview of the Act's provisions as well as practical tools including simple checklists, calculators, lists of loan repayment assistance programs, FAQs and podcasts. Heather Jarvis, senior program manager for Equal Justice Works, says she is "continually surprised at how little is known about the benefits of the new law." She describes those benefits as "huge, potentially life-changing" but warns that they are not automatic or guaranteed, and students should know whether their loans qualify under the new law. "There's a lot to know-it can be hard to wrap your head around," she said, "But we've made it as easy as it can be."
The Management Information Exchange is hosting a training session for new directors of legal aid programs on May 12 and 13 in Orlando, immediately preceding the ABA/NLADA Equal Justice Conference. The session will cover topics such as how leadership differs from management, how to determine the impact of an organization's work, and how to work effectively with a board of directors. The session will cover the general knowledge that directors should have to run an effective organization, but will focus on providing guidance related to some of the most important tasks required of a director. The training will be conducted by John Arango, an MIE consultant, and members of the group's Training Committee.
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.
"Terrence" went to the Legal Services of Eastern Missouri for help with a math problem-a very serious math problem: a car dealer was suing him for $15,000 over a car worth only $6,000. The numbers just did not add up. Legal aid helped him find the solution.
It turned out the car dealer was taking Terrence for a ride. When he agreed to buy the car under the terms of a financing plan, the dealer told him the cash price was $6,000 but he would end up paying $10,000 with interest. However, the dealer had so obscured the information on its Truth in Lending Act form that the actual costs and interest rates were completely illegible. Unbeknownst to him, Terrence was actually signing a contract for a car worth $10,000 in cash and $15,000 with interest-more than double what the dealer said the car was worth.
After making a few payments, Terrence realized that something was wrong and returned the car to the dealer, which promptly sued him for what it claimed was the balance due: nearly $10,000. Panicked at the thought of having to pay the outrageous price, Terrence went to legal aid for help. Legal Services of Eastern Missouri sued the car dealer for violating the Truth in Lending Act and for unfair and deceptive business practices. The case was eventually settled and Terrence was given a suitable solution to his math problem-he paid the car dealer exactly $0.
The original version of this story appeared in the latest issue of the Legal Services of Eastern Missouri's "Justice" newsletter. Click here to download a copy.