LSC Updates - July 1, 2008
The Appropriations Committees of both houses of Congress have recommended $390 million for LSC's FY 2009 budget-a $40 million, or 11 percent, increase over current funding levels.
The Committees differ in their plans for dividing the total among LSC's sub-accounts, but both would provide substantial funding increases for LSC's grantees. LSC would receive roughly $34 million to $37 million more than in FY 08 to distribute as basic field grants, $1 million to $1.7 million more for Technology Initiative Grants, and $500,000 more for LSC's Loan Repayment Assistance Program. LSC would also receive increases for management and administration, and for the Office of Inspector General. See the chart below for a more detailed breakdown.
In its summary of the spending bill that funds LSC, the House Appropriations Committee, led by Chairman David R. Obey with Jerry Lewis as Ranking Member, noted that LSC's budget has never recovered from deep cuts suffered in the mid-90's, and that "[t]his bill begins the process of restoring [this] important program."
While the passage of LSC's budget through both appropriations committees is a crucial step in this year's funding cycle, final action by Congress might not occur until next year. Congressional Quarterly, which monitors developments on Capitol Hill, reported on June 26 that Obey and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd plan to wait until a new President is in office before submitting any FY 09 spending bills for Executive Branch approval.
On June 26, LSC hosted a regulatory workshop to discuss proposed rule changes that would give the Corporation additional enforcement tools, or "alternative sanctions," to discipline grantees that violate federal law or LSC regulations.
LSC's rulemaking workshops are designed to foster open dialogue with the stakeholder community-represented in this case by members of the client community, leaders from LSC-funded programs, and staff from advocacy organizations like the Center for Law and Social Policy and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association-regarding problems or concerns with the proposed rule changes, and to discuss ways that issues can be addressed.
The specific sanctions under consideration, which are discussed more fully in LSC's Draft Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, would give LSC the ability to reduce a grantee's funding by less than 5 percent, and would allow the Corporation to suspend a grantee's funding for longer than the currently allowable 30 days.
Karen J. Sarjeant, LSC Vice President for Programs and Compliance, framed the discussion by saying, "The importance of every single program being in compliance is so great. One program being out of compliance can be the broad brush that every program gets painted with."
Discussion focused on the importance of ensuring compliance without sacrificing client services, identifying problems that would trigger LSC's use of the new sanctions, whether LSC's existing enforcement tools could be used more creatively to ensure compliance, and how broadly or narrowly the rules establishing the new sanctions would be written.
The workshop was moderated by Charles Jeffress, LSC's Chief Administrative Officer, and attended by LSC Board Member Bernice Phillips-Jackson and staff from LSC's offices of Program Performance, Compliance and Enforcement, Legal Affairs, and Inspector General.
The latest issue of Legal Services of North Louisiana's (LSNL) quarterly newsletter features an interview with LSC President Helaine M. Barnett, in which she discusses her long history of service to the ideal of equal justice for all, her perspectives on the issues confronting legal aid programs today, and her vision for the future of low-income legal advocacy.
"From her days as an attorney for the New York Legal Aid Society to her current position as LSC President, Ms. Barnett has worked tirelessly to open up the gates of justice to everyone," says Alma Jones, LSNL Executive Director. "I think you will be both inspired and educated by her words."
LSC's two grantees in South Dakota-East River Legal Services and Dakota Plains Legal Services-were featured in a recent Argus Leader article highlighting the programs' increasing inability to serve clients as funding sources shrink in a state-one of only three-that does not provide funding for civil legal aid. Doug Cummings, Executive Director of East River Legal Services, which turned away 77 percent of eligible applicants in 2005, has only five attorneys in one office to provide services to clients in 33 counties. "We can't fulfill our obligations with the funding and staff we have," said Cummings. The issue has not escaped the attention of the state bar association, whose outgoing president, Richard L. Travis, made securing permanent and stable state funding one of the cornerstones of his year-long tenure. The legislature did consider a legal aid funding measure in its last session, but the move ultimately failed as a result of its connection with a widely-reviled tax increase on liquor. According to the article, a legislative committee will conduct an investigation on how to provide legal aid funding and will be releasing a study on the issue in the near future.
The editorial board of the Argus Leader followed its article with a statement urging the legislature to "pay close attention to the interim study's results-and then act."
The Associated Press – June 28, 2008
Directors of the statewide agency that has offered free legal help to low-income residents in Idaho for 40 years say the organization is extremely understaffed and underfunded.
Idaho Legal Aid can only represent about 20 percent of the people who seek its legal services, said the agency's executive director Ernesto Sanchez.
"Everyone should be able to participate in our judicial system in order to defend themselves if they are being sued or to further their legal claims as plaintiffs," Sanchez told the Lewiston Morning Tribune, "regardless of their ability to pay for representation."
"We are always busy," said Jeannine Ferguson, a managing attorney who works in the Idaho Legal Aid's northern Idaho office in Lewiston. "There is a pretty big demand, always a bigger demand than we can meet."
Iowa Legal Aid is working to provide free legal services to victims of the state's recent spate of floods that turned 70 of Iowa's 100 counties into federal disaster areas. Dennis Groenenboom, Iowa Legal Aid's Executive Director, told the Globe Gazette that his program is receiving more calls every day from people looking for legal help with problems stemming from the floods, primarily with landlord-tenant issues resulting from damaged homes. Groenenboom said he expects his program will begin receiving more calls from people seeking help with applications for assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal programs. The program is also available to help people file appeals for denials of federal assistance, to provide advice on submitting or pursuing insurance claims, and to provide representation in any other civil legal matter relating to the floods. Iowa Legal Aid's Cedar Rapids office was severely damaged as a result of the flooding, as were the homes of some staff members, but the office has relocated to a temporary location and is now fully functional. Other offices were also impacted, but minimally.
New York's Daily News reports that the Pension Unit of South Brooklyn Legal Services has helped Demetrius "Bo" Samadjopoulos, a carpenter for New York City's Transportation Department who spent six weeks working at Ground Zero after 9/11, secure a disability pension for injuries suffered on the job. Samadjopoulos was originally denied a pension by a city medical board, even though his own doctor and a World Trade Center medical expert found that he had clearly developed respiratory ailments as a result of his work. In early April, the Manhattan Supreme Court overturned the medical board's decision and gave Samadjopoulos his pension after learning that the medical board's examination lasted only 15 minutes and involved no respiratory tests.
"I'm not looking for free money. I'm looking for my measly $20,000 a year and medical coverage for my daughter," said Samadjopoulos.
South Brooklyn Legal Services is part of the LSC-funded Legal Services NYC. The program's Pension Unit helps workers and their dependents learn about pension benefits that are owed to them, and resolves problems for those who are denied their rightful benefits.
By a June 16 order of Hawaii's Supreme Court, the state became the twentieth in the nation to institute IOLTA interest rate comparability rules designed to strengthen a vital funding source for civil legal aid programs. The court's action will require all lawyers in the state to place their client funds in accounts with banks that agree to provide interest rates comparable to other similar accounts. Interest on Lawyer Trust Account, or IOLTA, programs collect this interest on a statewide level and distribute the funds as grants to civil legal aid programs. IOLTA programs provided nearly $80 million to LSC-funded programs in 2006.
Chuck Greenfield, Executive Director of the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii and a member of a task force that pushed for the change, said, "It is fair and just that banks pay the same interest rates on IOLTA accounts as they pay on other accounts. Poor people should receive the same interest rate as paid those with more means on similar investments. The Supreme Court of Hawaii's decision to require interest rate comparability on IOLTA accounts is fundamental to improving access to justice in our state. The Court should be commended for its decisive action, foresight and concern for access to justice."
The Legal Aid Coalition of Southeastern Massachusetts has released the findings from its legal needs assessment survey, an update of a 2003 analysis of the most critical legal problems of low-income residents of Barnstable, Bristol, Dukes, Nantucket and Plymouth Counties, and parts of Norfolk County. The Coalition retained the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Policy Analysis to conduct the survey, which consisted of telephone interviews, focus groups, and self-administered surveys distributed to strategic locations throughout the target area.
The new report identifies the ten most important legal problems identified by the respondents, with health care, housing, education, and employment leading the list. The report also found that only 14 percent of respondents sought legal help in the last twelve months, that the majority of respondents rated legal aid services as vitally important, and that the majority of respondents who have sought legal help do not think pro bono services adequately meet the need.
The Legal Aid Coalition of Southeastern Massachusetts is composed of the LSC-funded New Center for Legal Advocacy and the South Coastal Legal Services, which is primarily state-funded.
Over 150 attorneys participated in Puerto Rico Legal Services' (PRLS) First National Justice Conference, held June 26-27, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Attorneys from the LSC-funded Community Law Office, the Puerto Rico Civil Rights Commission, and the Puerto Rico Bar Association's pro bono program joined PRLS staff to discuss the recurring issues and challenges that poverty poses to legal aid attorneys and their clients. Charles S. Hey Maestre, Executive Director of PRLS, said the conference was the first opportunity in many years for the island's advocates for the poor to come together to share their experiences and analyze their roles as attorneys for an increasingly impoverished population in greater need of legal assistance.
The Conference's inaugural address was given by Noel Coln Martnez, one of the original founders of PRLS. The Conference included various workshops and sessions, moderated by legal experts in the areas of special education, child support, immigration, child abuse, public housing, community development, health, and juvenile law.
New York's Legal Services of the Hudson Valley has received a $10,000 grant from the Westchester Community Foundation (WCF) to support the organization's Elder Law Program, which helps low-income senior citizens remain independent and stay in their own homes. The program focuses on resolving housing problems, providing access to government benefits and medical services, safeguarding seniors' finances and rights, and protecting them from abuse or exploitation. The Westchester Community Foundation is a non-profit community endowment for the benefit of Westchester County.
Barbara Finkelstein, Executive Director of Legal Services of the Hudson Valley, said, "This grant will help us provide critical legal services to vulnerable senior citizens in Westchester County and help them remain independent. We are grateful for the opportunity to be partnering with WCF to help at-risk seniors in our community."
Jesse L. Gaines, Chief Executive Officer of Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas (LANWT), has received the 2008 Professionalism Award from the Tarrant County Bar Association for exemplifying, by conduct and character, professional traits that other Bar members should strive to emulate. Gaines has been with LANWT, formerly West Texas Legal Services, for nearly 30 years-as a staff attorney, managing attorney, deputy director, executive director and finally Chief Executive Officer. Throughout his career, Gaines has been known for his deep dedication to seeking justice for the underprivileged-constantly reminding staff that "clients come first." Early in his career, Gaines traveled throughout low-income communities with only a card table and metal folding chair to use for clients interviews. Betty Balli Torres, Executive Director of the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, said in her nominating letter, "Jesse epitomizes the highest ethical standards of our profession and conducts himself with a gentility not frequently observed by lawyers today. He inspires those around him to be gracious and fervent advocates for the rights of those less fortunate."
The LSC Resource Information (LRI) is an online clearinghouse of best practices, model projects, and other resources for LSC-funded programs.
Legal Aid Society of San Diego's PAI Program Plan
The Legal Aid Society of San Diego has developed a comprehensive document detailing the innovative ways the program works to increase private attorney involvement in the delivery of legal services to its clients. The document was created following LSC's issuance of its 2007 Program Letter, which provides guidance to all LSC-funded programs on developing strategies to enhance private attorney involvement. The document discusses how the program's pro bono project is successfully working with large law firms, corporate and government attorneys, small firms and solo practitioners, law schools, the judiciary, bar associations, and other groups to more effectively provide legal services to the low-income community.
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 Provides Lasting Solution to Domestic Violence Victim
"Karen" came to Legal Services of Eastern Missouri's Lasting Solutions Program in 2006 for help obtaining a divorce. During discussions with her attorney, Karen revealed that her husband had been physically, sexually, and psychologically abusive. He would call her names, break things in the house, punch holes in the wall during angry tirades, and push her down the stairs.
He also attempted to keep her under his total control, preventing her from spending any money without his approval, giving her a mere $30 a week to buy groceries for her and their two children, and preventing her from leaving the house without him. He would sometimes take Karen to work with him, forcing her to wait in the car until he got off.
Legal Services of Eastern Missouri's Lasting Solutions Program provides holistic services to clients, including legal assistance, social service referrals and case management provided by a professional social worker. The program helped Karen obtain a protective order while staff began the slow process of securing a divorce. The judge in the case gave Karen's husband numerous chances to try and build relationships with his children, and the case went on for over a year. Finally, in May 2007, the case went to trial and the court granted custody of the children to Karen and ordered the husband to have minimum contact with them. Unfortunately, as there were very few marital assets, Karen had to start her new life from scratch.
Lasting Solutions assigned Karen a social worker to help her find resources within the community to help her build her new life.
In August of 2007, the client told her dramatic story at a fundraising event held for the Lasting Solutions Program. The audience was deeply moved by her honesty and determination.
Recently, Karen sent an e-mail to her attorney at LSEM to tell him that she was about to graduate from junior college, cum laude, with an Associate of Arts Degree, and would be attending a four-year college on a full scholarship. She also remains active in speaking out against domestic violence, and frequently attends a local police academy to help educate recruits about domestic violence.