LSC Updates - May 22, 2009
Fifty-three Senators have signed on to a letter asking key appropriators to provide at least $435 million for the Legal Services Corporation in fiscal year 2010-a $45 million increase over current funding levels and the amount requested by President Obama. Forty-five Democrats, six Republicans and two Independents signed the letter.
Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) was the lead sponsor of the letter and has sent similar letters requesting increases for LSC for at least the last eight years. Senator Kennedy is Chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which is responsible for conducting oversight of the Corporation.
The letter notes that the increase for LSC is necessary to meet "the greater need that exists today because of the economic crisis, which has increased the number of foreclosures, the numbers of the unemployed, and the number of individuals and families who now qualify for federally funded legal aid." The letter also points out that current funding levels are still far less, in real dollars, than what LSC received nearly 15 years and 30 years ago.
"Without continued increases in federal funding," concludes the letter, "many more of our most vulnerable citizens will be denied assistance in the future. We urge you, therefore, to fund the Legal Services Corporation at no less than $435 million for the coming fiscal year to help meet this critical need."
Freshman Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) issued a press release on May 14 to announce her support for the increase. "As a former attorney, I know how important it is for all New Yorkers to get the legal representation they deserve," she said. "But too many New York families are getting left behind when it's their day in court. We need to give the LSC the resources it needs to handle more cases, provide representation for more of New York's low-income families and move toward better equality in our justice system."
Glenn Rawdon of LSC's Office of Program Performance and Joyce Raby, formerly of LSC, have received the National Legal Aid and Defender Association's Innovation in Technology Award for creating and ensuring the continued success of LSC's Technology Initiative Grants program, which funds technology projects aimed at increasing access to justice for low-income Americans.
Rawdon and Raby received the honor at the 2009 Equal Justice Conference in Orlando on May 15. Don Saunders, NLADA's Director of Civil Legal Services, presented the award and read testimonials from other technology experts throughout the legal aid community, who heaped high-praise on the pair.
"Successful programs require at least three things," wrote Pat McClintock of Iowa Legal Aid. "They need to be good ideas, they need to be viewed by those served as good ideas, and they need to be run by good people. The LSC Technology Initiative Grants program has met those requirements. The good people behind TIG are Glenn and Joyce who brought to the job a belief in the important role that technology can play in expanding access to legal services and who have demonstrated the requisite flexibility, patience and support in working with programs like Iowa Legal Aid, which have benefited mightily from TIG."
Alison Paul of the Montana Legal Services Association wrote, "Through Glenn's tireless efforts to preach the gospel of automated forms, the [National Legal Services Document Assembly Server] and automated documents for self-represented litigants have become a reality. This project has benefited tens of thousands of low-income people across the country and it would not exist without Glenn's unwavering support."
"Joyce Raby has been a visionary thinker on using technology in a legal aid setting," wrote Paul. "She has pushed legal aid programs to recognize the potential of technology to connect legal aid programs and clients, and has championed the notion that the use of technology is not limited by income status. She will be sorely missed by legal aid programs as she moves forward on her new path."
The American Bar Association and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association sponsored the 2009 Equal Justice Conference on May 14-16 in Orlando. The annual event brings together representatives from throughout the legal community to discuss issues of importance to the delivery of legal services to the poor.
LSC President Helaine M. Barnett addressed two sessions during this year's conference. The first focused on recent developments at LSC including the funding outlook for fiscal year 2010, efforts to update the Justice Gap Report, and the Corporation's current initiatives. At the second session, Barnett was joined by Deborah Hankinson, Chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants, Alan Houseman of the Center for Law and Social Policy, and Don Saunders of the NLADA for a discussion of issues affecting civil legal aid on the national level. Topics included the status of Congressional efforts to reauthorize LSC, the nomination process for new members of LSC's Board of Directors, the status of IOLTA programs throughout the country, and federal efforts to provide loan repayment assistance to legal aid lawyers.
LSC staff from the Office of Program Performance (OPP) also presented at a number of conference sessions, which focused on recruiting volunteer attorneys, providing services to low-income victims of natural disasters, maximizing resources for intake and hotlines, using technology to weather an economic storm, fully integrating statewide websites into program activities and the benefits of medical-legal partnerships.
During the conference, Mary M. Connolly, executive director of the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association, received the Tanya Neiman Pro Bono Professional of the Year Award from the National Association of Pro Bono Professionals. The award recognizes an individual who has demonstrated a steadfast commitment to pro bono, given exceptional service and achieved outstanding results. The Volunteer Lawyers Project provides free civil legal services to low-income people throughout the greater Boston area, relying primarily on the pro bono services of private attorneys.
LSC President Helaine M. Barnett spoke at a luncheon on May 19 to honor long-time members of the American Law Institute at the group's 86th Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. Barnett was chosen to represent the Life Member class of 1984. Life Members are those who have been part of the Institute for 25 years.
The Institute was founded in 1923 to improve the law and the administration of justice in a scholarly and scientific manner. Membership, which is limited to 3,000, is reserved for judges, lawyers and law professors who have a solid record of professional achievement and have demonstrated interest in improving the law.
Roberta Cooper Ramo, the first female president of the Institute, introduced Barnett to the luncheon attendees. In 1995, Ramo was elected to lead the American Bar Association-also its first female president. During her tenure there, she helped secure the crucial support of then-Senator Pete Domenici for LSC during a critical time in the Corporation's history.
Barnett's speech, entitled "Justice for All: A Time for Action," focused on the origins of the concept of "justice for all," the history of civil legal services in the U.S., the accomplishments of legal services programs, the current challenges confronting legal aid programs, and the need for the entire legal community to work to ensure that America fulfills its promise of "justice for all."
"All of us here today have the privilege of living in this great democracy and serving in a profession that enables us to preserve and improve that democracy," Barnett said. "We must embrace the responsibility that comes with those privileges, to ensure that justice is not just for some, but truly for all."
Prior to the Equal Justice Conference, staff from the Legal Services Corporation visited the Orlando office of Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida to learn more about the program's work with low-income clients. LSC President Helaine M. Barnett, Vice President Karen Sarjeant and Mike Genz from the Office of Program Performance met with members of the program's Board of Directors and heard presentations from managers of the housing, domestic violence, public benefits, intake and private attorney involvement units.
The Daytona-based Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida provides free civil legal services to low-income people in 12 counties. Led by Executive Director William H. Abbuehl, the program operates nine offices and employs nearly 30 attorneys. In 2008 the program provided free legal assistance to almost 9,000 people, largely in the areas of family, housing, and consumer law. The program also has a number of special projects focusing on specific legal areas including foreclosure, domestic violence, unemployment, special education and fair housing.
The program's work was recently profiled in a video segment on a blog sponsored by the Voice of America. Click here to watch.
Press Release, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid – May 13, 2009
A federal court has ruled that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) must issue the standards and criteria used to distribute federal aid to disaster victims. The decision means that thousands of families may be eligible to receive assistance they were previously denied.
The decision comes after a lawsuit filed in November by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA), the leading provider of legal aid in Texas, on behalf of La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) and fourteen low-income victims of Hurricane Dolly. The Rio Grande Valley residents were denied FEMA benefits because of the conditions of their homes prior to the disaster. The only explanation the residents received for their denials was that their homes suffered "insufficient damage."
According to the original lawsuit, it is FEMA's policy to deny housing repair assistance to homes that were in substandard condition before the storm because any damage during the disaster was caused by the quality of the home. This approach to disaster aid prevents low-income families from receiving assistance that they qualify for and need for their health and safety.
"FEMA will finally have to define how it determines who gets help to rebuild their homes and their lives," said TRLA Executive Director David Hall. "Because of this decision there are thousands of families across Texas who will have a chance to fight for aid they should have received months ago."
Alex De Grand, State Bar of Wisconsin – May 13, 2009
The Wisconsin Supreme Court voted on May 13 to approve a new Supreme Court Rule directing the creation of a new Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission.
An Access to Justice Commission will be charged with developing and encouraging means of expanding access to the civil justice system for unrepresented low-income Wisconsin residents. The State Bar of Wisconsin had petitioned the court last summer for the commission as a key recommendation of the State Bar's report documenting a serious lack of civil legal services and proposing solutions.
State Bar President Diane Diel was in attendance to see the court embrace the petition that she had championed throughout the term of her presidency along with Past President Tom Basting. "I am very glad for all of the people of Wisconsin who are in great need of improved civil legal services," Diel said of the court's vote.
Note: There are currently access to justice commissions in 24 states and the District of Columbia.
Press Release, Legal Aid Society of Hawaii – May 15, 2009
The Board of Directors of the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii has appointed M. Nalani Fujimori to the position of Executive Director of Hawaii's oldest and largest non-profit public interest law firm, effective May 13, 2009.
The economic downturn has deeply affected and challenged non-profit organizations throughout the country, and the Legal Aid Society is no exception. However, the daunting challenge of guiding Legal Aid through these tough economic times was one which Nalani eagerly accepted. She brings over 10 years of experience with Legal Aid to the position of Executive Director in one of the firm's most challenging times.
Board President George Zweibel states, "Legal Aid and the community it serves could not be more fortunate. Nalani has proven time and time again, through her leadership, dedication, and tireless efforts-in and out of the program-that she is the right person to assume the reins at Legal Aid today and to lead the program into the future."
"I thank the Board of Directors for putting their trust in me as the Executive Director." Nalani says, "While the next few years will be difficult, I am up for the challenge and the opportunity to help shape Legal Aid into an organization which will be even more client oriented and in touch with the needs of the community."
Press Release, Alaska Legal Services Corporation – May 8, 2009
The Alaska Bar Foundation and the Alaska Bar Association have recognized Andy Harrington, Executive Director of Alaska Legal Services Corporation (ALSC), with the Judge Jay Rabinowitz Public Service Award. The award was presented during the Alaska Bar Association's convention in Juneau.
The award is named after former Alaska Supreme Court Justice Jay Rabinowitz. Justice Rabinowitz dedicated his life to public service. The Alaska Bar Foundation established the award to recognize exceptional individuals who dedicate their life to public service. Mr. Harrington clerked with Justice Rabinowitz when he moved to Alaska in the early 80's.
Mr. Harrington has been the executive director of Alaska Legal Services Corporation, the largest and oldest provider of free civil legal service to low-income Alaskans, since 2001. Prior to that, he had served as staff attorney and supervising attorney of the Fairbanks ALSC office since 1983. He is a Harvard Law School graduate and has a degree in Physics from the University of Fairbanks. He was recently one of four candidates referred to Governor Palin by the Alaska Judicial Council to be considered for the Alaska Supreme Court vacancy after Justice Alex Bryner's retirement.
Equal Justice Works will be hosting a free webinar on May 26 for debt-laden public service professionals interested in learning how they can benefit from debt relief provisions in the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007. The session will provide information on how to qualify for the law's Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, how the new Income-Based Repayment plan works, and how to figure out how much one can benefit from the new programs. Heather Jarvis, Senior Program Manager for EJW and a national expert on educational debt and the financial barriers facing law school graduates, will lead the session.
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.
Innocent Spouse Freed from Husband's Tax Liability
Thousands of taxpayers will now have more opportunity to protect their rights, thanks to a case that Nashville attorney Robert Nadler helped argue in Tax Court. The case involved an IRS regulation imposing a two-year limit for innocent spouses to claim relief from a joint liability. The Tax Court held the regulation was invalid, giving innocent spouses more time to file their claims.
Nadler explained that taxpayers who are suffering an economic hardship, who are victims of spousal abuse, and who did not know about the unreported income are most likely to benefit from this decision. Many of Nadler's clients are single mothers who have been in abusive marriages. Nadler is a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society and is the author of the Innocent Spouse Manual, which is used by legal aid clinics throughout the country.
He worked on the case with Valparaiso Law Professor Paul Kohlhoff. The decision in the case, Lantz v. Commissioner, was released on April 7. Ms. Lantz had filed a joint return with her husband. After his death, she learned that he owed much more tax than he reported. She then filed a claim for "innocent spouse relief," but the IRS denied her claim because of the two-year period in the regulation.
Nadler and Kohlhoff argued that Congress did not intend for the IRS to limit innocent spouse relief to a two-year period, when the IRS has ten years to collect the tax. The Tax Court agreed and struck down the two-year limit.
"This was an important victory for many taxpayers," Nadler explained. "Taxpayers in this situation often are not aware they have an innocent spouse claim until long after the tax first becomes due. This decision will help insure that the IRS considers the merits of each taxpayers case."
Nadler works with the Legal Aid Societys Tennessee Taxpayer Project, a low-income taxpayer clinic funded by the IRS. It helps low-wage taxpayers who have disputes with the IRS. The Legal Aid Society gives free legal aid to people who have nowhere else to turn. It is Tennessees largest legal aid provider and is funded in part by United Way.