LSC Updates - July 16, 2008
The major housing and foreclosure prevention package passed by the U.S. Senate on July 11 (H.R. 3221) provides funding for legal assistance for homeowners threatened by foreclosure, but prohibits that funding from being used for civil litigation.
Section 2305 of the bill would provide $30 million to the federal Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation to distribute as grants to HUD- or NRC-approved counseling organizations, which in turn would hire attorneys to provide foreclosure-related legal assistance to owners of owner-occupied homes. However, the bill states that none of the funds can be used to "provide, obtain, or arrange for" civil litigation on behalf of homeowners.
This section of the bill differs significantly from what the House passed in May. The House version would provide $5 million more in funding, would allow the NRC to make grants directly to legal organizations or attorneys, would allow grantees to help homeowners and tenants threatened by foreclosure, and does not prohibit the money from being used for civil litigation.
The House and Senate will have to reconcile this and other differing provisions before submitting a final bill for the President's approval. According to Congressional Quarterly, which monitors Capitol Hill, final passage by Congress could come as early as next week.
On July 16, LSC President Helaine M. Barnett received the Public Service Award from the National Association of Women Lawyers at the group's 2008 Annual Luncheon in New York City. This award honors a lawyer who has demonstrated throughout her career a dedication to public service, achievement in leadership and accomplishments, and public advocacy on behalf of public service goals.
Barnett is in her fifth year as LSC President. During her tenure she has worked tirelessly to educate Congress and the public about the critical need for adequate funding to support LSC's mission of promoting equal access to justice, and the need to close the justice gap. Before coming to LSC, Barnett worked for the Legal Aid Society of New York for 37 years-the last ten as head of its Civil Division.
"I accept this award on behalf of all civil legal aid attorneys," said Barnett, "particularly those in the more than 900 LSC-funded offices with nearly 4,000 attorneys who work throughout the country everyday to fulfill the pledge of justice for all.' They are public servants in the truest sense and deserve the recognition that comes with this award." Barnett urged the more than 1,000 attendees to continue supporting efforts to close the justice gap and work towards making the promise of equal justice for all' a reality.
The National Association of Woman Lawyers is a voluntary organization dedicated to advancing the interests of women lawyers and women's legal rights. Founded in 1899, the Association is the oldest women's bar association in the country, and has served as an active voice for the concerns of women in the legal profession and as an education and advocacy forum.
On July 15, LSC President Helaine M. Barnett spoke at the Southeast Project Director and Administrator (SEPDA) Annual Meeting, held in St. Petersburg, Fla., from July 13-16. SEPDA is a group of leaders and key staff from more than 30 legal aid programs in more than 10 states. The group meets at least once a year to discuss important issues affecting the delivery of legal services in their region.
Barnett gave an update on recent developments at LSC, including the Corporation's participation in two Congressional hearings earlier this year, the outlook for LSC's FY 2009 appropriation, LSC's 2008 Executive Directors Conference, the 2009 Competitive Grants process and other LSC initiatives.
Barnett was joined by LSC Program Counsel Willie Abrams, who works with LSC's grantees in the region, and Program Counsel Glenn Rawdon, co-administrator of LSC's Technology Initiative Grant program. Rawdon co-hosted a presentation with Mike Monahan of the Georgia State Bar's Pro Bono Project on technological innovations in intake and communication.
Other sessions covered topics such as securing significant and lasting results for clients, complying with employment laws, surviving with decreasing funds, and addressing the salary crisis for legal aid lawyers.
Legal aid offices across the Midwest are gearing up for a surge in their workload caused by the recent flooding. In Iowa, one legal aid office was swamped by floodwaters but quickly relocated to continue providing services to clients.
Iowa Legal Aid expects to see an increase in requests for help in coming weeks as many Iowans begin to file insurance claims and request assistance with paperwork required by federal and state agencies, Dennis Groenenboom, executive director of Iowa Legal Aid, said.
The first wave of requests for help, though, has involved landlord-tenant issues. A common question, Groenenboom said, is, "If your apartment has flooded and you can't get in, do you still owe rent?"
Iowa Legal Aid and Indiana Legal Services are receiving calls about landlord-tenant issues, and both offices are expediting work on the cases because of the disruption caused to their communities by the recent floods.
"We have been trying to stay on top of it. It has been overwhelming," Erica Burns, executive assistant to the Indiana Legal Services executive director, said.
On June 24, the Board of Directors of the Virginia Legal Aid Society adopted a resolution to increase the involvement of private attorneys in the delivery of civil legal services to their clients, bringing to 91 the total number of LSC-funded programs who have adopted such resolutions.
LSC is encouraging all program Boards of Directors to adopt pro bono resolutions modeled after one adopted by LSC's Board in April 2007. Urging programs to adopt local resolutions is a key element of LSC's private attorney involvement action plan, entitled "Help Close the Justice Gap, Unleash the Power of Pro Bono."
Thanks in part to the Atlanta Legal Aid Society and the Georgia Legal Services Program, thousands of disabled Georgians will have the opportunity to leave the state's mental health institutions and rejoin their communities-all while receiving support and care tailored to their individual needs.
In 2001, the legal aid programs and other advocacy organizations filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services alleging that Georgia was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to treat disabled individuals in the most integrated community setting possible. The complaints sought to bring the state into compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court's 1999 ruling in Olmstead v. L.C.-a case filed by the Atlanta Legal Aid Society-which stated that unnecessary institutionalization of the disabled constitutes discrimination.
On July 1 of this year, Georgia settled the complaints by agreeing to involve consumers and advocates in planning how best to serve the disabled within their communities.
"If the agreement results in long overdue residential supports and other needed community services, it could finally begin to heal the wounds we have all suffered from institutionalizing people who should be our neighbors," said Sue Jamieson, an Atlanta Legal Aid attorney who worked on the original Olmstead case.
For more information, read, "Mentally ill gain housing options," in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
The North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission has released a report on the state of access to the civil justice system for poor and near-poor residents. The Commission was created in 2005 by the North Carolina Supreme Court to study the unmet need for civil legal services, propose solutions to address the problem, and launch initiatives to implement the solutions. In the report, the Commission estimates that 80 percent of the more than three million North Carolinians who qualify for legal aid do not have access to legal representation provided by a legal aid program or pro bono attorney. The report also notes that Legal Aid of North Carolina must turn away eight clients for every one accepted. The Commission proposes a number of solutions to address the problem, including increasing state funding for legal aid organizations, establishing a right to counsel in certain cases, increasing pro bono representation, and establishing debt reduction programs for legal aid lawyers.
The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland and the law firm of Jones Day have teamed up to provide pro bono representation to tenants facing eviction in the city's housing court, which handles thousands of cases a year involving renters struggling to keep their homes without the help of a lawyer. The Legal Aid Society, which directs its limited resources towards representing public housing tenants, screens and refers private renters to young lawyers at Jones Day who are eager to gain the valuable courtroom experience the cases provide-experience it might take years to earn at their firm. Legal Aid supports the volunteers by providing training, malpractice insurance, and other guidance and assistance. The project has won the support of Housing Court Judge Ray Pianka, who told Cleveland's Plain Dealer, "Tenants don't know their rights. It's always better in court when parties have legal counsel."
For more information, read, "Renters, lawyers benefit from unusual volunteer program at Cleveland Housing Court," in Cleveland's Plain Dealer.
MidPenn Legal Services and the Blair County Bar Association have joined forces to help the rapidly increasing number of county residents brought to court for defaulting on their mortgage and credit card payments. County court records show that mortgage lawsuits have been ballooning in recent years, and credit card suits in 2008 are well on their way to doubling compared to last year. To address the looming crisis, Legal Services and the Bar worked together to secure a $10,000 grant from the Interest on Lawyer Trust Account program, which will fund intake, training, and salaries for the private attorneys, who must agree to take one case for free, but who will be paid $30 an hour for subsequent cases.
For more information, read, "Lawyers team up to tackle defaults," in the Altoona Mirror.
The Tennessee Bar Association (TBA) has launched a multi-pronged effort to increase access to justice for the state's poor. The "4ALL" campaign, which is modeled after the North Carolina Bar Association's successful 2007 push, has four goals: to educate lawyers and the public about the importance of civil legal services, to collaborate with the state Supreme Court and other bar associations on initiatives to increase access, to participate in the delivery of services by encouraging private attorneys to provide pro bono representation, and to legislate to increase state funding for legal aid programs. As part of the education component of the campaign, the TBA produced a DVD to highlight the seriousness of the problem, which it will show at every bar meeting and Continuing Legal Education session for the next twelve months.
Married couples traditionally celebrate thirtieth anniversaries with gifts of pearl, but Legal Services of North Florida (LSNF) received an altogether different gift to mark its third decade of service: a $1 million insurance document from a local law firm listing the legal aid program as the sole beneficiary. Less romantic perhaps, but infinitely more valuable, especially since the donation from the Tallahassee-based firm of Parks & Crump put the program well within striking distance of its $2 million goal for its 30th Anniversary Endowment Fund. "With our services, people can continue living and working in the community as active participants," said LSNF Executive Director Kristine Knab. "While our Pledge of Allegiance promises 'justice for all,' if people have no ability to enforce their rights or address grievances, the freedoms we espouse are hollow."
For more information, read, "Saluting Legal Services," in the Tallahassee Democrat.
The Legal Services National Technology Assistance Project, or NTAP, is hosting a training session on how legal aid advocates and managers can use RSS feeds to manage information overload and streamline their daily work. RSS, which stands for Really Simple Syndication, allows internet users to consolidate news and other information from multiple web sites into a single source, like Google, Yahoo, or a stand-alone newsreader. Intrigued? Confused? Register for NTAP's training, which will walk users through the basics of using RSS in a poverty law setting, and promises to provide users with a personalized news page by the end of the session.
The LSC Resource Information (LRI) is an online clearinghouse of best practices, model projects, and other resources for LSC-funded programs.
"Before Atticus Said Yes'" by Legal Aid of East Tennessee
Legal Aid of East Tennessee has developed a "dramatic" method for recruiting pro bono attorneys to represent their clients: "Before Atticus Said, Yes,'" a play based on "To Kill A Mockingbird," Harper Lee's famous 1960 novel about Atticus Finch, a courageous small-town lawyer in the segregated South who agrees to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman. The play, which stars a legal aid attorney, a local judge, and members of the private bar, focuses on the considerations that might have been made by the legal community prior to Finch's acceptance of the case. LAET has produced a DVD of the play, which includes a discussion by the actors of the issues raised in the story, and a question and answer session between the actors and an audience.
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.
Mother Reunited with Abducted Children After Two-Year Struggle
A local mother has returned to Harlingen, Texas, after traveling to Argentina to recover her two sons more than two years after they were taken there by their father.
Represented by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA), the largest provider of legal aid in Texas, Ana Maria Cegledi has struggled to recover her two sons, Ladislao Uriel and Jonas Kevin, since April 2006. Cegledi has been living in Harlingen with her four children since 2001. Her husband, Daniel, took their two oldest sons to Argentina in an attempt to force Cegledi to reconcile and relocate after she told him that she wanted a divorce.
"He tried to use the children to keep her in the relationship and force her to move," said TRLA attorney Pamela Brown. "For almost two years, the only contact she had with her boys was a few random telephone calls."
Brown leads TRLA's Bi-National Project on Family Violence, a project that helps family violence survivors in desperate situations. In its five years of operation the Bi-National Project has helped more than 370 domestic violence survivors prevent the abduction of their children or fight to secure their safe return.
To help Cegledi get her children back, TRLA filed an Application for Return under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, an international treaty designed to secure the return of children taken across national borders. TRLA also helped Cegledi get an attorney in Argentina to assist in navigating the Argentine legal system while she remained in Harlingen. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children provided financial help to bring the two boys home once a judge ordered that they be returned to Cegledi.
Added Brown, "It may have taken two years, but these children are finally back with their mother and in Texas where they belong."