LSC Updates - February 8, 2006
The Legal Services Corporation is requesting $411,800,000 in funding for FY 2007, a $48 million increase over LSC's FY 2006 request and $85.2 million over the final (post-rescission) FY 2006 appropriation.
Over 95 percent of the proposed increase is for grants to the local legal aid programs to address the significant gap in the unmet civil legal needs of low-income Americans and to improve grantee efficiency and effectiveness through innovative and expanded use of technology.
LSC Board Chairman Frank B. Strickland said "LSC recognizes the fiscal constraints facing Congress. However, we hope Congress will conclude that turning away over 50 percent of eligible individuals who need legal assistance is an unacceptable situation."
"The proposed LSC budget, which would increase funding for the delivery of basic legal services by 20 percent, represents a necessary first step towards addressing the needs documented in the Justice Gap report and meeting our nation's goal of equal justice for all," noted LSC President Helaine M. Barnett.
Note: As discussed in the story below, President Bush requested $311 million for LSC in FY 2007.
At its meeting on January 28, 2006, LSC's Board of Directors adopted "LSC's Strategic Directions 2006-2010" a document outlining the Corporation's goals for the next five years, and the strategies to be used to achieve them.
LSC has published its 2006 Income Guidelines (45 CFR Part 1611, Appendix A). The 2006 guidelines are equivalent to 125% of the current Federal Poverty Guidelines as published by the Department of Health and Human Services on January 24, 2006 (71 FR 3848). As part of the Appendix, LSC has included charts listing income levels that are 200% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines, as a reference for LSC-funded programs.
The website of United States Representative Ben Chandler (D-KY) is currently displaying a prominent link to Kentucky's LSC-funded statewide legal assistance website. The link points to a guide created by Kentucky legal services programs to help the state's residents understand the "highly technical and complex" new Medicare prescription drug program, often referred to as Medicare Part D.
President Bush on Monday dealt a blow to the Legal Services Corp., urging Congress to reduce LSC's funding to $310.86 million in fiscal year 2007 from the $329.8 million that lawmakers approved for the organization this year.
Bush's proposed funding falls far short of the $411.8 million that LSC says it needs in fiscal 2007, which begins Oct. 1. The nonprofit corporation said its current funding is already so low that it must reject half of the indigent citizens who seek its help in handling civil claims.
"LSC believes its proposed increase is necessary to fulfill its statutory role" of helping the indigent, the organization states in its own budget proposal. "While LSC recognizes the fiscal constraints currently facing Congress, LSC does not believe that turning away 50 percent of the eligible people seeking assistance is an acceptable situation."
Last year, LSC's budget request of $363.8 million did not fare well in Congress. Bush countered with a $318.6 million proposal and the House of Representatives passed legislation to provide $330.8 million for LSC.
The corporation had a glimmer of hope when the Senate approved $358.5 million for LSC following the devastation that Hurricane Katrina brought to indigent Gulf Coast residents in August. However, the House's figure prevailed during negotiations between senators and representatives.
Adding insult to injury, the $330.8 million figure was reduced to $329.8 due to an across-the-board federal budget cut. LSC said it hopes Congress is more sympathetic this year to indigents who seek help from the corporation's local affiliates in handling litigation involving family law, housing, income maintenance and consumer matters, as well as other issues afflicting the poor.
"The proposed LSC budget, which would increase funding for the delivery of basic legal services by 20 percent, represents a necessary first step towards ... meeting our nation's goal of equal justice for all," LSC President Helaine M. Barnett said in releasing the corporation's budget request.
Of the $411.8 million in LSC's proposed budget, $386.8 million would go to its local affiliates, $14.5 million to management and administration, $5 million to technology initiatives, $3.5 million to its office of inspector general, and $1 million each to LSC's disaster relief fund and loan repayment assistance program, the corporation said.
Congress created LSC, a private, nonprofit corporation, in 1974 to provide poor Americans with legal assistance in civil matters. LSC uses the bulk of its congressional funding, about 95 percent, to provide grants to local legal-aid programs nationwide. The rest of its money goes to management and administration and its inspector general office, according to LSC data.
More than 43 million Americans qualify for LSC assistance, which is limited to people and families with incomes below 125 percent of the poverty line, the corporation reported. Based on the current poverty line, the top income amount for LSC aid to an individual is $12,249.99, and for a family of four it is $24,999.99.
Family law matters, such as securing restraining orders in cases of domestic violence, comprise the plurality of cases, 38.1 percent, handled by LSC grantees, the corporation said. Other major issues involve housing, 24.3 percent; income maintenance, 12.6 percent; and consumer matters, 11.9 percent, LSC stated.
When Chicago resident Wallace Bradley filed a federal employment discrimination lawsuit against a construction company, he got a quick lesson in the legal process.
After being fired in 2002, Bradley did not have enough money to hire a lawyer and he wanted to deal directly with the company himself. So he filed the suit pro se, meaning he would represent himself in court. It wasn't easy.
"The ins and outs are hard when you don't know what you're doing," Bradley said. "You're going against a company which can hire a major law firm to make you keep coming back to court again and again. It's rough."
"A maze" is how many lawyers and judges describe the process of suing in federal court. But every year thousands of people such as Bradley try to navigate the process.
Now the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago has launched a program to provide free legal assistance for people in filing pro se federal lawsuits.
"I'm really glad they did that," said Bradley, sitting at a computer terminal in the federal court building recently, looking up cases for a friend. "There needs to be something done to assist people like me. A lot of people can't afford an attorney, and they are afraid of this building because they don't know how things work."
Judges and lawyers here who advocated for the help-desk program -- which was launched early last month as the District Court Self-Help Assistance Desk -- describe it as a win-win situation for all. It serves as a filter, weeding out frivolous cases or cases that do not belong in federal court, while aiding people with legitimate complaints.
"Lots of times we've had pro se complaints that are literally gibberish," said District Judge William J. Hibbler, who was involved in founding the help desk. "Trying to make heads or tails of their complaints was a big effort. There might be a kernel of a case there, but it's so poorly articulated that it gets dismissed. People need technical help to formulate complaints in such a fashion that we can deal with them."
Sheldon H. Roodman, executive director of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, called it "highly likely" the idea will catch on in other U.S. courts. "There's been a wave of self-help desks in state courts that have proven their worth," he said. "I think federal courts will also find it a useful part of the justice system."
The Chicago Bar Foundation put up more than $100,000 to fund the program and hire the lawyer who staffs the desk full time. The lawyer, who has federal court experience, is employed by the Legal Assistance Foundation.
"This way, someone has a chance to talk to a lawyer to understand their rights and the federal court system," Roodman said. "People might come and the staff lawyer will explain they really don't have a federal case."
If the help-desk lawyer thinks there is a valid case, he or she will help prepare the complaint and related papers and filings.
"When you see people struggling so much to get their rights vindicated, we want to be able to help them do that," Hibbler said.
The Alaska House on Monday passed a bill creating a special account to fund a nonprofit law group that represents poor Alaskans in civil legal matters.
The money would come from the state's share of punitive damage awards in civil lawsuits decided in Alaska.
A 1997 law requires Alaska courts to award 50 percent of punitive damages judgments to the state's general fund.
Bill sponsor Rep. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, said that amount was $175,000 in 2004. Last year, it was $476,000.
The money would go to the Alaska Legal Services Corp., a nonprofit organization that provides legal assistance to indigent residents.
Twenty years ago, the state gave ALSC more than $1 million, but two years ago the Legislature slashed its appropriation to the group and Gov. Frank Murkowski vetoed the rest.
The Legislature would have to approve funding the group each year, as one Legislature can't bind future lawmakers. But McGuire called the measure a creative way to set up an account that would pay for the poor's civil legal services with civil awards.
The measure passed the House 33-2. It now goes to the Senate for consideration.
Come summer, Danny Mills will scurry across blueberry fields and scour the Maine woods to advise migrant workers of their rights. He'll fight off black flies, mosquitoes and, sometimes, landlords to talk with strangers who work in Maine for a few months each year and live in tent cities and temporary housing.
Mills, an outreach worker for Pine Tree Legal Assistance since 1999, was drawn to the job not because he was a champion for justice. He just wanted an opportunity to speak the language of his maternal grandparents more often.
"I like things to be fair," Mills, 48, said recently when asked what he found rewarding about the job. "When a person does work, they should get paid what they were promised and they should get the treatment they were promised."
Mills, a paralegal, last year put 10,750 miles on his car, handed out more than 2,100 pieces of literature and met with about 1,500 people seeking advice on labor issues. His work with farmworkers and American Indians has earned him the John W. Ballou Distinguished Service Award from the Maine State Bar Association.
The award, named for a prominent Bangor lawyer who also served on the Bangor City Council, is given to a member of the legal community who exemplifies the example set by Ballou. At the time of his death from cancer in 1993, Ballou was president of the Maine Bar Foundation and chairman of a judicial ethics committee.
The Asian American Bar Association of the Greater Chicago Area is looking for attorneys to assist immigrants who are victims of domestic violence.
The volunteers, through the Legal Services Center for Immigrants, a project of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, will prepare and file Violence Against Women Act cases to help clients gain immigration benefits without the participation of their abusers.
Those interested should contact Sara Murray, pro bono coordinator, by phone at (312) 347-8324 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
The New Year always ushers in change, and this January we have plenty of changes underway at California Indian Legal Services (CILS). After leading CILS for more than twenty-three years, Michael Pfeffer has stepped down as our Executive Director. It is with both sadness and gratitude for his many years of service that I make this announcement: CILS and California Indians have had the benefit of Mike's incredible wealth of knowledge, boundless energy, and passion for his work for more than two decades. Although he will not be leaving CILS, Mike has certainly left big shoes to fill for our next generation of leadership.
Under Mike's leadership, CILS has thrived as the law firm that California Indians can call their own: over the years, CILS has evolved to meet the changing needs of California Indians and Indian tribes, but has remained true to its commitment and responsibility to be the organization that California Indians can turn to protect and advance their rights. We remain committed to this legacy.
Patricia Dixon, Chairperson
CILS Board of Trustees
A seven-year-old was ordered to pay back more than $3,000 in benefits after the Social Security Administration overestimated his parents' wages.
A creditor and police claiming to have a court order illegally repossessed a car and the repossession company wouldn't give it back to the owner.
An 80-year-old woman signed her property over to a grandson while she was on medication, and later he announced he was throwing her out and selling the house.
All three of these St. Francois County residents had valid legal claims. None had legal expertise. Not one had the financial resources to hire a lawyer to resolve the problem.
So, like hundreds of other St. Francois County residents each year, they turned to Legal Services of Southern Missouri, a group of dedicated attorneys and legal staff ready to go to battle for "the little guys" to make sure they have an equal chance for justice when they go up against the powerful.
They do it with no charge to the client, win or lose.
Bruce Plenk was named the first director of advocacy for Southern Arizona Legal Aid Inc. He has more than 20 years of experience in legal services and is currently a legal aid staff attorney practicing primarily in the area of housing law. Plenk previously worked for the National Consumer Law Center, taught law school, and operated his own private practice.
California Attorney General Bill Lockyer last week filed papers to join a motion seeking dismissal of a lawsuit brought in response to Sacramento County's affordable housing ordinance.
The ordinance requires developers of homes to set aside 15 percent of units for affordable housing or provide the equivalent in land or fees.
After the county adopted the ordinance in late 2004, the North State Building Industry Association sued the county in an attempt to have the policy overturned.
In late December, attorneys from Legal Services of Northern California filed a motion to have the building industry's lawsuit dismissed.
On Jan. 12, the attorney general's office filed papers to join that motion. The case is scheduled to be considered in Sacramento Superior Court on Feb. 7.
Serving as president of the [Allegheny County Bar Association] is a natural progression for Robert Racunas, a man whose leadership skills and positive personality are known throughout the Commonwealth.
"Bob is dedicated to the Pittsburgh legal community. Service as the ACBA President is a natural next step given his extensive involvement in bar association activities both locally and with the Pennsylvania Bar Association," said Ken Argentieri, a partner at Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Nicholson Graham and past board president of the Neighborhood Legal Services Association. "I believe he is so involved because of his interest in the legal system and his willingness to try to make a difference."
Racunas, who has served as executive director of [Neighborhood Legal Services Association (NLSA)] for the past 25 years, added president of the ACBA to his repertoire of accomplishments on July 1.
"Bob's experience at NLSA is different than the experiences of most of our past ACBA Presidents," said Argentieri. "He is not from private practice or the government, yet he has led what is essentially a large law firm for many years. His organizational skills in running NLSA will allow him to offer many suggestions to the ACBA. His leadership skills and experience with the NLSA board will assist him in leading the ACBA."
There is little doubt Leslie Curry, 50, could have cashed in her intellect and law degree long ago for the big bucks.
Instead, the University of Michigan Law School Graduate opted to stand up for the legal rights of the poor. For 25 years, she has fought for everyone from battered women to the disabled to people fighting foreclosure on their homes.
"I know several law firms that have made her offers," said Michael Chielens, executive director of Legal Aid of Western Michigan. "She could have been doing rich people's divorces and made a lot of money."
Curry was honored with the "Unsung Hero" award at the annual meeting of the State Bar of Michigan in East Lansing.
To Curry, the work is as rewarding as anything she can imagine in law.
"I got dealt a good hand in life and feel some obligation to do what I can in my little patch of green to make others' lives a little bit better.
I don't have the opportunity to fight on a big stage. I can do a little bit every day, right here. I'm happy to do it."
SUCCESS STORY FROM LEGAL SERVICES OF SOUTH CENTRAL MICHIGAN
(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.)
HOMEOWNERS GET PRESSURE TO PAY TAXES - AND A HELPING HAND
Nick Schirripa, The Battle Creek Enquirer (MI) - February 2, 2006
Lynne Edwards almost lost her home to foreclosure.
The 49-year-old Battle Creek woman has lived in her house for the past 12 years with her 49-year-old husband, who had a stroke and is disabled, and they support themselves and their 6-year-old granddaughter with the $413 they get from the state each month in disability benefits.
But the Edwards' property taxes haven't been paid for two years. So when the county treasurer's office threatened late in 2005 to take her home, Edwards said she began looking for help.
"It's hard," she said. "Do you pay for medication or do you eat? Do you have gas? Do you have lights?"
Edwards owns one of the more than 700 properties personally visited by the Calhoun County Treasurer's staff between mid-September and Dec. 31. Officials warned those owners of the potential loss of their property for non-payment of property taxes.
The county invigorated its tax-collecting efforts in 2005 after accepting certain property foreclosure responsibilities from the state.
"I didn't know what we were going to do. I thought, 'Oh my God, we're going to lose our home,'" Edwards said. "I went down to and applied for emergency needs with the Department of Human Services, and I was denied."
Edwards said she called the county treasurer's office and told staff about the denial, and it was then she was referred to Chris Elsworth, the tax collaboration attorney with Legal Services of South Central Michigan in Battle Creek.
Elsworth and Legal Services are part of a collaborative effort with county Treasurer Ann Rosenbaum Petredean and the Volunteer Center of Battle Creek that is designed to match people with area agencies and resources to help them avoid losing their houses to the county.
The partnership is funded by a three-year, $264,023 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and a two-year $15,000 grant from Calhoun County Treasurer's office, according to Jennifer Schrand, managing attorney of Legal Services' Calhoun County office.
Elsworth said he has talked with about 50 people already this year, and more are sure to follow.
"That's a very big number and I have more appointments lined up. I can't even project more people will come in," he said. "This is not something that only helps if they're just about to lose their homes. This is for anybody who is having some troubles with property taxes or title issues."
The help he gives people is not a one-time deal, Elsworth said, and he continues to work with people after delinquency issues are resolved.
"The people who are in my office and have gotten an extension, they still stay with me and I make sure they get extra benefits they're entitled to," he said. "The idea is to get them enough resources to pay their delinquency and survive beyond."
Edwards said she is thankful for the help she has gotten from Elsworth and Legal Services.
"I know there's a lot of us here in town that are going to need this program," she said. "If I hadn't talked with Chris and he hadn't stepped in on our behalf, we could have very easily lost our home."
Edwards received a confirmation letter from the state Department of Human Services verifying the full payment of about $1,200 in delinquent property taxes.