LSC Updates - January 22, 2009
The Legal Services Corporation sponsored the 9th annual Technology Initiative Grants conference-the only technology conference created for legal services providers-in Austin, Texas, on January 21-23. The conference drew 119 attendees, including the 33 recipients of 2008 TIG awards.
"Technology plays an increasingly vital role in the delivery of legal services, and all of us need to work together to share ideas and practices that increase our efficiency, our effectiveness and, most importantly, improve our ability to help eligible clients," Helaine M. Barnett, president of LSC, said in her welcoming remarks to the attendees.
LSC-funded programs will be encouraged to address three "areas of interest" when submitting Letters of Intent for the 2009 TIG cycle, she said. LSC is interested in proposals on how to address the impact of the recession by using technology to enable eligible clients to better represent themselves, where appropriate, or that equip attorneys and advocates to more efficiently help clients. LSC also is interested in proposals that help meet the legal needs of veterans and military personnel returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan combat zones. The last area of interest involves board training and oversight, and how technology can assist in facilitating effective board communications and activities, thereby improving the efficiency and effectiveness of board governance.
Barnett, concluding her welcoming remarks to the attendees, said, "Thank you all for participating in this conference and for your efforts in developing creative and new ways to provide greater access to justice for low-income individuals and families."
TIG coordinators scheduled a series of panel discussions that drew on the expertise of LSC-funded programs, Pro Bono Net, the Texas Access to Justice Commission and other groups. The next issue of LSC Updates will include a report on the presentations and other activities at the TIG conference.
Illinois Legal Aid Online is providing webcasts of the conference session on its advocate website. Click here for the schedule.
The New York Times has placed a national spotlight on the devastating impact that plummeting revenue from Interest on Lawyers' Trust Accounts is having on the nation's legal aid programs – staff layoffs and denials of service to more low-income Americans in need of legal assistance. The article, "Interest Rate Drop Has Dire Results for Legal Aid," by Erik Eckholm, ran as the lead story on the National page of the Times' Jan. 19 edition.
The story notes that, "in an odd twist," the Federal Reserve's recent interest rate cuts-designed to stimulate the nation's flagging economy-have deflated the budgets of many legal aid programs and may result in staff layoffs of up to 20 percent at some programs, just as the demand for legal assistance has risen by 30 percent.
LSC President Helaine M. Barnett is quoted in the article following a reference to LSC's 2005 Justice Gap Report, which found that funding shortages force LSC-funded programs to turn away 50 percent of eligible applicants for their services. "Equal access to justice is a bedrock principle," said Barnett, but now, "the justice gap has precipitously widened."
Paul Furrh, executive director of the Houston-based Lone Star Legal Aid, was also interviewed for the article. He said his organization was already overwhelmed with demand for help prior to the IOLTA crisis, largely as a result of the scores of legal problems suffered by victims of Hurricane Ike.
A complaint challenging a Legal Services Corporation regulation implementing 1996 LSC funding restrictions has been rejected by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
The State of Oregon filed the complaint in September 2005 against LSC's "program integrity" regulation, saying it violated the state's 10th Amendment rights and the Spending Clause of the U. S. Constitution by thwarting state policies governing legal services programs. The U.S. District Court in Oregon dismissed the case on the merits, holding that the State was not entitled to relief under either theory. In a ruling dated January 8, the appeals court concluded that Oregon lacked standing to pursue the case because the LSC regulations do not affect the state itself in any way. The appeals court vacated the District Court's order with instructions that the case instead be dismissed for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction because of the lack of standing to state a claim.
The Legal Services Corporation has awarded a grant to Choctaw Legal Defense to provide civil legal services for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, a federally recognized tribe with nearly 10,000 members.
Choctaw Legal Defense will receive a one-year grant of $80,718. The program had provided civil legal aid to Native Americans from 2001 through 2006 under a subgrant from the Mississippi Center for Legal Services, which is funded by LSC.
"We welcome Choctaw Legal Defense as an LSC grantee and believe that the program will be a meaningful provider of civil legal aid to Native Americans," Helaine M. Barnett, the president of LSC, said.
A newly revised business bankruptcy primer created by the Business Bankruptcy Committee of the American Bar Association's Section of Business Law and federal disaster housing guidance are among the recent additions to a new website set up by the Legal Services Corporation and three other national legal organizations to help victims of disasters find valuable information and assistance.
The National Disaster Legal Aid website - www.disasterlegalaid.org - is sponsored by LSC, the American Bar Association, the National Legal Aid & Defender Association and Pro Bono Net. The website was launched in November to help disaster victims recover from hurricanes, fires, floods and other disasters.
The legal problems faced by people affected by disasters continue for years following the actual event. The issues involve landlord/tenant disputes, rent-gouging by unscrupulous landlords, temporary housing problems, consumer fraud and domestic violence from disaster-related distress. Health and environmental problems arise from the cleanup of homes and buildings.
Press Release, Legal Aid Society (Louisville) – January 12, 2009
The Legal Aid Society announces the opening of our Self-Help Center, a resource that utilizes innovative technology to guide low-income clients through the process of representing themselves in court pro se (without a lawyer). Funded by the Louisville Bar Foundation, the Self-Help Center offers clients interactive do-it-yourself legal forms, a catalog of video tutorials on a wide array of legal issues, and resources that will guide them through the pro se court process.
The Self-Help Center is home to programs that allow clients to complete forms with respect to their uncontested divorce, small claims actions, or criminal record expungement. The video library offers additional resources to clients who are looking for legal information on issues such as landlord-tenant law, consumer law, family law, or for information on how to represent oneself in court. The video library is being developed in partnership with the Louisville Bar Association.
The Self-Help Center is the first of its kind in Kentucky and builds on the success the Legal Aid Society and our partners have achieved in providing assistance to self-represented litigants.
Click here for more information. ( 220K)
The Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia, the state's highest court, has approved a proposal to initiate an Access to Justice program aimed at identifying ways to improve the state's judicial system for the benefit of citizens. The proposal, submitted by Chief Justice Brent Benjamin, was approved during the court's administrative conference on Dec. 9. The proposal commits the court to work with Legal Aid of West Virginia and state and local bar associations to develop recommendations for strengthening the judicial system. The measure also empowers Chief Justice Benjamin to appoint a nine-member, statewide Access to Justice Commission to identify barriers to the civil justice system in West Virginia and plan ways to eliminate them. "West Virginians of all socio-economic levels should be able to bring and defend their civil legal problems within our judicial system in a meaningful manner," said Benjamin. "Legal problems can strike anyone, regardless of resources. We-the judiciary and the bar-can delay this important task no longer."
Marsha Ternus, Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, described "the condition of our courts" in five words during her 2009 State of the Judiciary address last week: "We live in challenging times." She was referring to the challenge of adequately serving all the people walking into the state's courthouses during these tight economic times, when legal problems are on the rise but funding from the state, which is experiencing tough times of its own, is not.
"One of the most serious challenges facing Iowa's court system, indeed the nation's courts, is meeting the civil legal needs of people who cannot afford to hire a lawyer to represent them," said Ternus. "We cannot ignore this growing problem." She argued that funding legal aid organizations was the most effective way to ensure poor Iowans received adequate legal representation, but that increasing services for self-represented litigants and streamlining some court procedures would also improve the situation.
"We are frequently reminded these days that government cannot do everything," said Ternus. "We agree. Government cannot do everything, and in times like these it cannot afford to do everything. But bear these simple truths in mind: there are some things that only government can do, and these things it must do well. Administering justice under the law equally to all people is a function that only government can fulfill."
Christian Nolan, Connecticut Law Tribune – January 5, 2009
When Janice Chiaretto decided to go to law school, she knew she wanted to help people who could not afford a lawyer on their own. So it became especially tough for Chiaretto to turn people away during her four years in private practice.
"I started to take cases where people couldn't pay me," Chiaretto recalled. "That's just not a very good formula in private practice…but I knew I could help them."
So Chiaretto decided to leave her practice in Worcester, Mass., and help less fortunate clients full time.
In April 2007, she was hired as the deputy director of Statewide Legal Services of Connecticut in Middletown.
After just 20 months, she has advanced to become the executive director, assuming the top spot on Jan. 1. The outgoing director, Norman K. Janes, will serve as interim executive director of the Connecticut Bar Association, which is seeking a new leader after the retirement of Tim Hazen.
"Her vision of providing legal services is very exciting to us," said Daniel Blinn, president of Statewide Legal Services' Board of Directors. "Jan is an effective advocate for the importance of alternative legal services, such as hotlines, in an era of reduced funding and increased need."
Press Release, Legal Aid of Nebraska – January 5, 2009
The Board of Directors of Legal Aid of Nebraska [has] announced the appointment of Dave Pantos as executive director of Nebraska's largest, non-profit law firm.
A New Jersey native and 1992 graduate of Rutgers University, Pantos received his juris doctorate from Indiana University in 1996. While a student at IU, Pantos volunteered as an intern with Legal Services of Indiana. After law school, Pantos started in private practice in Denver, Colorado, doing mostly worker's compensation litigation. In 1999, Pantos and his wife relocated to his native New Jersey, where he worked for Legal Services of New Jersey, representing disabled welfare recipients. In 2006, Pantos started working for Legal Aid of Nebraska as its Director of Litigation and Advocacy.
Of his appointment, Pantos said his lifelong commitment to social justice makes the work a natural fit. "I've always felt whatever you do should have a component of social justice involved," he says. "I just didn't know I could make a profession out of giving back' until I was in law school."
Pantos' vision for the future of Legal Aid of Nebraska will start with procuring the necessary funds for the firm's continued growth. "My primary focus initially will be resource development," he said. "We're in a good position right now fiscally, but as we're out there trying to get more funds to do our work, we need to make the case that Legal Aid is a name you can trust. With the economic downturn comes an increase in legal needs of our low-income neighbors. Legal Aid of Nebraska must be ready to respond to that need."
Press Release, Pro Bono Net – January 15, 2009
The LawHelp/NY Consortium, which developed and runs www.LawHelp.org/NY, a one-stop legal information portal for low-income New Yorkers, has been named one of eight finalists for The Collaboration Prize, a national cash award of $250,000 presented to an outstanding model of nonprofit collaboration.
The Lodestar Foundation, in association with the Arizona-Indiana-Michigan (AIM) Alliance, created the Collaboration Prize in an effort to demonstrate how nonprofit resources can be used more effectively to create greater impact. The LawHelp/NY Consortium, which is made up of 11 legal aid, bar and pro bono organizations throughout the state, was selected from a competitive pool of over 644 U.S.-based nominations.
"LawHelp/NY has helped tens of thousands of low-income New Yorkers get access to crucial legal services as well as high quality resources they need to understand their rights," said the Hon. Juanita Bing Newton, Deputy Chief Administrative Judge for Justice Initiatives for the New York State Unified Court System. "In addition, it provides a worthy model of cooperative decision-making and resource sharing."
The Consortium was nominated by Judge Newton, whose office partnered with the LawHelp/NY Consortium to create a Going to Court channel for LawHelp/NY, and promotes awareness of LawHelp/NY among litigants without lawyers.
Note: Five members of the Consortium are grantees of the Legal Services Corporation: Legal Services NYC, Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, Legal Assistance of Western New York, Legal Services of the Hudson Valley and Nassau/Suffolk Law Services. LawHelp/NY has received continuous support from LSC's Technology Initiative Grants program, which has also provided funding for similar sites in every state in the country.
The LSC Resource Information (LRI) is an online clearinghouse of best practices, model projects, and other resources for LSC-funded programs.
Legal Services NYC's Externship Program
Legal Services NYC offers externship opportunities for attorneys in private practice to gain valuable legal expertise and experience. Externship programs provide associates from law firms to Legal Services NYC offices to work full-time for four to six month periods under the supervision of one of the Legal Services NYC managing attorneys. Externships are a unique opportunity for pro bono lawyers to gain valuable, concentrated experience in the courtroom and directly with clients.
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.
Legal Aid Prevents Eviction of Nursing Home Patient Over Billing Dispute
A nursing home resident with multiple sclerosis who was threatened with involuntary discharge because of an outstanding bill will be allowed to stay, Baltimore's WBAL-TV reported on Jan. 9. Melanie Conaway's attorney, Maryland Legal Aid staff attorney Anne Haffner, successfully negotiated an agreement with the facility, Future Care Northpoint in Dundalk. "We were prepared to go into a hearing and lose the hearing and be faced with a difficult decision about where Mrs. Conaway was going to be living," Haffner told WBAL investigative reporter Barry Simms.
But under a last-minute settlement, Conaway will remain at the nursing home. "She said she was just so happy she would be able to stay and get her medical needs met at this nursing home," Haffner said in the news segment. "The settlement agreement allows Mrs. Conaway to stay while we pursue a judgment against her ex-husband."
The whole dispute focused on a $300 a month payment-alimony Conaway is supposed to receive from a divorce settlement in Tennessee. The funds are considered income and must be used for her nursing home stay, Simms reported.