LSC Updates - May 17, 2006

LSC President Addresses First Arizona Statewide Legal Service Conference

LSC President Helaine M. Barnett spoke at Arizona's 2006 Statewide Legal Service Conference, held in Phoenix on May 11-12. The conference, entitled "Life Liberty, and the Pursuit of a Happy Workplace" brought together all legal services staff--attorneys, paralegals, intake personnel, and receptionists--to discuss how best to serve clients.

Barnett delivered the main address at a working lunch on May 11, providing an update on national legal services developments from LSC's perspective, highlighting the work of the three LSC-funded legal services programs in the state, and discussing the importance of partnerships and collaborations at the state level--with the bar, the courts, law schools, and other organizations--to increase access to justice for Arizona's low-income citizens.

Barnett also participated in a workshop on LSC's policies and practices for serving clients with Limited English Proficiency. The workshop was conducted by Tom Berning, Executive Director of Southern Arizona Legal Aid, whose program serves a client population that is nearly 40% Hispanic.

The conference was hosted by the Arizona Foundation for Legal Services and Education, the State Bar of Arizona Legal Service Committee, and the Arizona Domestic Violence Legal Assistance Project.

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LSC Prevails In Cosby Case

On May 11, 2006, the U.S. District Court granted summary judgment in favor of LSC on all causes of action in the case of Teresa N. Cosby vs. The Legal Services Corporation. Teresa Cosby, the former Executive Director of South Carolina Centers for Equal Justice, brought a suit against LSC for libel, slander, malicious prosecution and other causes of action. In ruling in favor of LSC for summary judgment on all counts, the Court found among other things that LSC had an absolute privilege in its communications in carrying out its compliance functions.

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LSC in the News

National Legal Services Corp. Visits [Legal Services of Eastern Missouri], Family Justice Center

Emily Umbright, St. Louis Daily Record/St. Louis Countian (MO) - May 4, 2006

About three and a half months after the St. Louis Family Justice Center made its official debut with kind words from U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the center's doors opened once again to show another group of Washingtonians just what the buzz is about.

With the national Legal Services Corp. selecting St. Louis for its board of directors meeting [on April 28], Legal Services of Eastern Missouri took the opportunity to show off the new center, where it has offices as part of its Lasting Solutions Project, which serves adults and children threatened by domestic violence.

"It's quite an honor to be selected by LSC to host a national board meeting," LSEM Executive Director and General Counsel Dan Glazier said in a statement. "It says a lot about the great work we do on behalf of our low-income clients."

The LSC visitors sang many praises for the services provided by LSEM, according to some of the comments Glazier heard at the meetings, which included such acclaims as "poster child for high-quality legal services" as well as compliments to the staff, its diversity and its ability to deal with complex issues.

Funding of the Family Justice Center came in the form of a $1,250,695 federal grant to the city of St. Louis and another $150,000 federal grant to LSEM. The center serves as a one-stop location where domestic violence victims receive access to prosecutors and police, counseling and medical care, as well as civil legal services.

To read the article in its entirety, click here. REGISTRATION REQUIRED.

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NM Supreme Court Backs Legal Aid Reform Plan

Paul Krza, The New Mexico Business Weekly - May 5, 2006

The New Mexico Supreme Court will assume oversight of free legal work for the poor by setting up committees in court districts across New Mexico, as recommended by a court-appointed panel that just finished a report on equal access to justice.

The court also says it supports more state aid to deal with the problem, perhaps doubling or quadrupling what is now spent, according to one justice.

The justices note in an order issued at the end of April that the New Mexico Commission on Access to Justice had presented compelling data that revealed "a severe shortage of civil legal assistance available for low income New Mexicans."

In addition to the districts, the commission called for tightening the pro bono requirements for the state's lawyers and also suggested beefed-up state funding to address the dearth of legal services for the poor.

The pro bono committees formed in the court districts would draft a unique plan to assist the poor. At the same time, a system would be set up to recruit lawyers and other volunteers to assist the poor in civil cases, which would be managed through a new Web site.

Note: Sarah M. Singleton, member of LSC's Board of Directors, serves on New Mexico's Commission on Access to Justice.

To read the article in its entirety, click here.

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Legal-Aid Programs In Funding Crisis

Jason Auslander, The New Mexican - May 16, 2006

The vast majority of poor people in New Mexico who need help navigating the civil judicial system can't get it, said the director of the state's legal-aid program.

"We're in a crisis situation," said Fernando Macias, executive director of New Mexico Legal Services. "For every person we help, we historically turn away 1.7 people. We are unable to respond to 10,000 people statewide."

The reason behind the crisis, according to Macias and others familiar with the situation, is simple: a lack of money.

Sarah Singleton, a local attorney recently named to the national Legal Services Corp. Board, said in 1996, the federal government funded the LSC to the tune of $400 million. However, when the Republican-dominated Congress took office that year, one of its goals was to eliminate the LSC, she said.

And while that goal went unfulfilled, the organization's national budget is now $278 million, a reduction that had a "devastating effect" on legal-aid programs in New Mexico, she said.

Macias underlined that point, saying New Mexico Legal Services, which employed 80 lawyers in the mid- '90s, now has money for just 28 lawyers, and three of those are part time.

"If not for Sen. (Pete) Domenici, we wouldn't have Legal Services anywhere," Singleton said. "He said, 'We have to help poor people with legal problems.' He really was a major reason why Legal Services Corp. still exists."

In a recent phone interview, Domenici, a Republican, said in 1996, a fellow Republican--Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas--wanted to eliminate the LSC because some in the organization had violated its premise by advocating causes like abortion, welfare reform and redistricting.

To keep the LSC from being eliminated, Domenici sponsored an amendment, with then-Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat, that imposed restrictions on the use of LSC funds. That amendment trumped Gramm's efforts to eliminate the organization, he said.

"I take seriously the proposition in this country that everybody is entitled to their day in court," Domenici said. "I take a lot of pride that we found a way to win."

He said he believes access to civil legal services by poor people in New Mexico "is truly in bad shape, no question" and that the LSC is currently underfunded by $17 million nationally. Domenici said he hopes to get that funding back, plus a little more.

"We have to be sure that funds are not cut," he said. "It really is in terrible straits, and we're gonna do everything we can."

As it is now, 80 percent of poor people in New Mexico who need civil legal help don't get it, Singleton said.

The current LSC budget for New Mexico is $4.7 million - including $1.5 million collected from civil-lawsuit filing fees, Macias said. The state needs at least $2 million more per year to be able to meet the immediate need, and $7.9 million more to help everyone who needs it, he said.

Macias said he and others are in the process of lobbying state legislators as to the depth of the problem in an effort to drum up more funding.

Failure to help the poor can have a substantial impact on society in general, and especially on children, Macias said.

It can lead to homelessness, malnutrition, stunted education, violence, increased poverty and added burdens on the court and social-welfare systems, Singleton said. "Investing a little money in legal aid ... saves a ton of money," she said. "It costs society to have homeless people. Because no one really sees the problem as their problem, they don't realize the magnitude of the problem and how many people ... would benefit from even a little bit of money."

Part of the problem is that the country's legal system is not easy to understand, Singleton said. Often when a person tries to handle a problem alone, they file the wrong paperwork then wait months for a court date, only to be told by a judge, who cannot offer legal advice, that they must refile the appropriate documents, she said.

District Judge Raymond Z. Ortiz, who was named to the bench in December and took over the First Judicial District's family docket, said the two main things he has been struck by since then are the number of pro se litigants - those who represent themselves - and the number of domestic-violence cases.

Cases involving pro se litigants often are not complex, he said, but dealing with people who have no legal counsel takes a lot more time than cases involving legal counsel. And when he's looking at a docket of about 2,500 cases - which he inherited - to which 250 cases are added each month, settling and dealing with cases as quickly as possible is imperative.

In an effort to head off that crisis - or help alleviate it, depending on one's point of view - the New Mexico Supreme Court recently adopted a report by the Commission on Access to Justice, which was charged with investigating the problem.

The commission recommended creating pro bono committees at all state District Courts, asking lawyers to work more than the 50 hours of yearly pro bono work now recommended and perhaps requiring lawyers' pro bono hours to be reported.

Macias said he isn't all that excited about the pro bono committees because he believes adequately funded, professionally staffed programs for poor people are more effective. That's because lawyers already often perform pro bono work in addition to operating busy practices, he said. Still, he recognized the idea as part of a solution to the problem.

To read the article in its entirety, click here.

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Scores of Coast Renters Facing Eviction

Lora Hines, The Clarion-Ledger (MS) - April 30, 2006

Nancy Cleckley and her daughter, Jennifer, thought they'd never leave their home at Greentree Apartments after moving there in June.

Their first-floor, 1,000-square-foot apartment is easily accessible for Jennifer, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and needs a wheelchair or walker to get around. The monthly $550 rent also was affordable for Cleckley, who is retired.

"We thought we were home," she said.

But the situation changed after Hurricane Katrina. The rent payment went up, and, this month, they got an eviction notice.

The Cleckleys are among a host of Gulf Coast tenants facing eviction in a rental market that largely was wiped out by the Aug. 29 storm. Jeremy Eisler, litigation director at Mississippi Center for Legal Services, said landlords are looking for ways to force out tenants so they can find renters who are willing to pay more.

"There is an enormous housing shortage on the Coast," he said. "The consensus is rental rates have gone up dramatically. In some cases, they have doubled."

Eisler's center and the Mississippi Center for Equal Justice in Biloxi both handle legal services for low-income clients who qualify. John Jopling, who is a housing attorney for the Equal Justice center, recently said he has represented more than 40 tenants evicted from hurricane-damaged apartments.

State law leaves tenants few options for recourse, Eisler said. Renters who can prove retaliation as a result of complaining about problems may have some success, he said.

"There is a foreclosure moratorium for folks whose homes have been damaged in the storm," Eisler said. "But we have nothing similar for protecting tenants. It's just a case where the haves have more than the have-nots."

To read the article in its entirety, click here.

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Judge Rules Against State In Home Equity Fee Lawsuit

The Austin American-Statesman (TX) - May 2, 2006

A state district judge issued a ruling Monday that eventually could lead to new caps on home equity loan fees.

Judge Scott Jenkins of Austin ruled that the state has illegally allowed lenders to charge homeowners much higher fees than the Texas Constitution allows. The ruling, a result of a lawsuit filed on behalf of Austin and San Antonio homeowners, now faces appeals from the state and the banking industry.

Last fall, Jenkins told lawyers in the case that he would rule against the state.

"This is a significant victory," said Robert Doggett of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers. "But it is certainly the first battle in probably a long war."

Texas became the last state to allow banks to offer home equity loans when it approved legislation in 1997, and then it allowed home equity loan lines of credit in 2003.

The legislation capped related home equity loan fees and interest at 3 percent but left it up to state agencies to interpret what fees were capped. The banking industry has said that if the ruling stands, it will hurt the home equity market.

To read the article in its entirety, click here.

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News Briefs From California's Central Coast

The Associated Press - May 4, 2006

At the city's request, Santa Barbara County probation officials agreed to delay action against 61 students cited under a daytime loitering ordinance during [a] March 31 immigration protest.

City and school district officials are trying to reach a settlement with attorneys representing some of the students.

California Rural Legal Assistance, representing several of the cited protesters, claims the loitering ordinance allows students to miss school to exercise their free-speech rights.

Students will not have to pay any fines, do community service or be subject to other penalties while the city, school district and the students' lawyers negotiate.

The families of two students filed a lawsuit against the city, police department, police Chief Bill Brown, the City Council, Lompoc Unified School District, Superintendent Frank Lynch and the school board.

The lawsuit filed by CRLA asks that the citations be thrown out and that the city ordinance not be used again against student protesters.

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Role Widened and Capacity Stretched, Legal Services Goes on a Fund Drive

Ellen Rosen, The New York Times - May 14, 2006

Despite an estimated resident population of 14,000 lawyers, affluent Westchester County has a legal-services shortage.

So much so that Legal Services of the Hudson Valley--one of few recourses for the county's poorer residents--has felt the need to embark on its first-ever fund-raising campaign, said Barbara Finkelstein, its executive director.

There haven't been many other alternatives: state money has increased only slightly despite the service's expansion, two years ago, to include Putnam, Dutchess, Rockland, Ulster and Sullivan Counties, Ms. Finkelstein said.

The service's target population of people at or below the poverty line has doubled, to about 400,000 in the region, as a result. So the staff of 60 needs help--primarily in the form of money to draw young lawyers, said Robert H. Hermann, the president, who is a partner in the White Plains office of Thacher Proffitt.

"We're uncompetitive with what firms pay," Mr. Hermann said. His plan is to offset that by using part of the fund-raising proceeds on a program of "loan payback assistance for young lawyers," who often owe large sums for their education.

The service, which has county offices in White Plains and Yonkers and is set to open one in Mount Vernon, also recently hired a director of development, Ann Hyatt, who has been reaching out to all Westchester lawyers, not just those practicing in the county. "Particularly for attorneys who work at big firms," said Ms. Hyatt, "many have commitments to those located in New York City. But as we talk to them, they are surprised." Most, she explained, "never realized the depth of the need" locally.

In fact James F. Gill, a partner at Bryan Cave in New York who doesn't live in the county, said he was so impressed by the organization that he agreed to be a chairman of a fund-raising event held last month. "The group is quite special in terms of talent, devotion and dedication to their cause," he said.

The campaign's goal, declared at the event, is $1 million. The halfway mark has already been met: the event, attended by 380 people, netted $100,000; other benefactors include Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom, which gave $40,000, and the law firm of Jacob D. Fuchsberg, which gave $10,000 to the current campaign.

To read the article in its entirety, click here.

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Lawyers Donate Nearly 85,000 Hours

Janet H. Cho, The Plain Dealer (OH) - May 9, 2006

More than 2,100 Cleveland area lawyers devoted nearly 85,000 hours to pro bono and public service last year under the Cleveland Bar Association's inaugural year of tracking community service.

At an average billable hourly rate of $200, that adds up to nearly $17 million worth of time spent helping needy people, schools and community groups.

The campaign, dubbed "Our Commitment to Our Community," or OCTOC, was launched in 2004 under then-president David Kutik.

Some highlights:

204 lawyers helped the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland serve more than 1,500 people. Others volunteered at St. Martin de Porres Family Center, Westside Catholic Center and the Spanish-American Committee.

"We served hundreds more low-income families in 2005 because of the OCTOC program," said Colleen Cotter, executive director of the Legal Aid Society.

To read the article in its entirety, click here.

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John D. Robb Receives Legal Services Award

The New Mexico Business Weekly - May 2, 2006

The American Bar Association [honored] Albuquerque lawyer John D. Robb with an award that recognizes his early efforts in helping establish the Legal Services Corp. and his continued efforts to secure legal aid for the poor.

Robb, a partner in Rodey, Dickason, Sloan, Akin & Robb, [was] given the award in Washington, D.C., during a meeting of the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Governmental Affairs on May 3 and 4 at the Grand Hyatt hotel.

The ABA states in a letter to Robb, that "without Mr. Robb's efforts on behalf of Legal Services, the Corporation as we know it, may not even exist today."

Robb has served as the longtime chairman of the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants and as a board member of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. He was one of the ABA's main representatives in putting together and helping to start up the National Legal Services Corp., testifying as an expert and legal aid witness on a number of occasions before committees of the U.S. House and Senate.

During the past 20 years of his career, his activities have additionally involved the pioneering of new concepts connected with Christian legal aid. For 18 years, he also has been a board member of the Christian Legal Society and chairman and director of its Public Ministries Committee.

To read the article in its entirety, click here.

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Metro-East Lawyers Hailed By Bar Association

The Belleville News-Democrat (IL) - May 11, 2006

Two metro-east residents are among six exemplary Illinois attorneys who have been named Laureates of the Academy of Illinois Lawyers, established in 1999 by the Illinois State Bar Association.

Lois J. Wood, of East St. Louis, and Joseph B. McDonnell, of Belleville, will be inducted to the 2006 class of Laureates at a luncheon Thursday at the Standard Club in Chicago.

Wood is executive director of Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation, in Alton, which serves low-income residents of 65 counties. A member of the Illinois State Bar Association Committee on Delivery of Legal Services, she follows in the footsteps of Joseph R. Bartylak, who was inducted last year as an Academy Laureate.

Wood joined Land of Lincoln in 1974 as an advocate for victims of urban poverty, became managing attorney in 1978, and from 1986 to 1996 also represented the Family Farm Law Project.

To read the article in its entirety, click here.

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NYC Bar Association Announces Winners Of The 16th Annual Legal Services Awards

Press Release, New York City Bar - May 8, 2006

The Association of the Bar of the City of New York has named four legal services attorneys and one non-attorney as recipients of the Sixteenth Annual Legal Services Awards, which give recognition to attorneys and non-attorneys who provide outstanding civil legal assistance to New York's poor.

This year's recipients [include]:

  • Tara Foster, Senior Attorney, Education Rights Project, Queens Legal Services
  • Joyce Heller, Director of Government Benefits Unit & New Initiatives, South Brooklyn Legal Services, Inc.

This year's Awards will be presented by Hon. Victor Marrero, United States District Judge, Southern District of New York.

Note: Queens Legal Services and South Brooklyn Legal Services are part of the LSC-funded Legal Services for New York City.

To read the article in its entirety, click here.

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LSC Resource Library Update

Sponsors: Indiana Legal Services
Project: Predatory Lending Project
Date: May 11, 2006

Indiana Legal Services launched the Saving Homes in Center Township Legal Project to protect low-income people from predatory lenders. ILS attorneys and paralegals form victim rescue teams to review loans and look for evidence of fraud.

To learn more about this project, visit LSC's Resource Library.