You are here

LSC Updates - January 8, 2009

Texas High Court Holds Hearing on Civil Legal Services

LSC President Provides National Perspective

Left to Right: Justice Phil Johnson, Justice David M. Medina, Justice Dale Wainright, Justice Scott A. Brister, Justice Paul Green, Justice Don. R. Willett, Justice Nathan L. Hecht, Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson, Justice Harriet O'Neill.
Left to Right: Justice Phil Johnson, Justice David M. Medina, Justice Dale Wainwright, Justice Scott A. Brister, Justice Paul Green, Justice Don. R. Willett, Justice Nathan L. Hecht, Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson, Justice Harriet O'Neill.

All nine justices of the Texas Supreme Court convened in the state capital on Dec. 10, for the court's third public hearing since 2000 on civil legal services for the poor. While many state courts have become actively involved in improving access to justice in recent years, the Texas court led the way by holding some of the first statewide hearings on the issue and by appointing one of the country's first access to justice commissions-a broad-based group dedicated to expanding the availability of civil legal services.

LSC President Helaine M. Barnett, who was invited to testify at the hearing, provided the court with a national perspective on the delivery of civil legal services. She began her testimony by recognizing the court for the example it has set for other judicial bodies around the country. "LSC appreciates your leadership, which has put Texas in the vanguard of the nationwide effort to provide civil legal assistance to the poor," she said. "Your efforts have benefited low-income Texans who need civil legal assistance as well as legal service providers, including the LSC-funded grantees in this state." In particular, she thanked Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson for his recent efforts to increase funding from Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts, and Justice Harriet O'Neill for her longstanding and ongoing support for civil legal services for the poor.

Justice Harriet O'Neill
Justice Harriet O'Neill

Justice O'Neill serves as the high court's representative on the Texas Access to Justice Commission and was praised throughout the hearing for her work to support the group. "Since she agreed to head up that effort," said Chief Justice Jefferson, "the relationships that we have, not only here in Texas but in the United States Congress, are stronger. The resources are greater, and it is largely because of her steadfast dedication to this effort that we are where we are today."

After the hearing, the San Antonio Express-News published an op-ed by O'Neill in which she dramatically highlighted the importance of legal aid with the story of a grandmother who fell into a months-long coma after being injured by gunfire during her daughter's violent murder at the hands of an ex-boyfriend. The grandmother said the free legal help she received over a two-year period from a local organization saved her life.

"In a society founded on the rule of law, access to justice should never depend on someone's ability to pay for a lawyer," said O'Neill in the article. "We need to help ensure that the legal aid delivery system is adequately funded so that it can provide basic civil legal services to those desperately in need. Legal aid is a lifesaver."

The hearing provided the Texas Access to Justice Commission with an opportunity to present the court with its status report on the delivery of civil legal services. The report discusses the commission's wide-ranging initiatives to improve access, including its work to engage corporate legal departments for fundraising and pro bono projects, the formation of a committee of law school deans to explore ways to introduce aspiring lawyers to legal aid, its efforts to improve the technological capacities of legal aid programs, and the implementation of a training program on trial advocacy techniques. The report also discusses funding issues, the state's increasing poverty population, and challenges to the delivery system posed by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Ike, and Dolly.

James B. Sales
James B. Sales

James B. Sales, Chairman of the Access to Justice Commission, thanked the court and the state bar association, which has also been an important partner, for their efforts. "Without the unwavering support of the Texas judiciary and the State Bar of Texas, thousands of Texans undoubtedly would go without desperately needed legal services," Sales said. "Any denial of access to the justice system because someone cannot afford legal representation violates our most primitive sense of fairness, decency and just plain basic justice."

Other witnesses at the hearing included the executive directors of two LSC-funded programs-David Hall of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and Paul Furrh of Lone Star Legal Aid-Bill Whitehurst, the immediate-past chairman of the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants, representatives of the state bar and access to justice foundation, and clients of legal aid programs.

Click here to watch a webcast of the hearing.

back to top ^

How to Deal with the Justice Gap

By LSC President Helaine M. Barnett

Note: This is an excerpt from an op-ed published in the Austin American-Statesman on Dec. 12, following Barnett's appearance before the Supreme Court of Texas at its hearing on civil legal services for the poor.

I have worked in legal aid for 42 years and when I reflect on what motivated me to be a legal aid lawyer, it is my belief that providing civil legal services to the poor is central to fundamental fairness, due process and equal protection under law. It is also central to the use of the law to correct inequities and abuses, and it is our responsibility to help others-to secure and protect the rights of the disenfranchised and vulnerable among us.

In his first inaugural address, our third president, Thomas Jefferson, listed the "essential principles of our government"-first among them was "equal and exact justice to all." But the fact is that the majority of most poor Americans do not have access to justice. It requires all of us-in community organizations, in the legal community, and in state and local governments-to keep working to make the promise of equal justice a reality.

Click here for the full article.

back to top ^

LSC Selects Interim Provider in Wyoming

LSC has awarded a grant to an interim legal services provider in Wyoming to ensure the delivery of civil legal assistance to low-income individuals and families across the state, LSC announced on Dec. 19.

LSC awarded month-to-month funding to Legal Aid of Wyoming Inc., doing business as Interim Legal Services Provider. Leda M. Pojman of Cheyenne, Wyo., serves as board chairman for the nonprofit legal aid organization and Raymond D. Macchia of Lander, Wyo., is the organization's executive director. The interim provider may be reached at this toll-free number, 1-877-432-9955.

Under the award, the interim provider will initially be responsible for existing cases that were handled by the former LSC-funded program, which relinquished its grant in October. For new cases, the interim provider will initially make referrals. LSC is holding a grant competition designed to select a full-service provider for comprehensive civil legal assistance in the state.

Prior to LSC's selection of the new provider, the Wyoming State Bar announced that the Wyoming Supreme Court has established an Access to Justice Commission that will develop a long-term plan to provide civil legal services in the state.

"This ability to continue to provide civil legal assistance to low-income individuals and families would not be possible without the support of the Wyoming State Bar, the Wyoming courts and others in the state. LSC hopes to partner with the state bar, courts and others to ensure those eligible for legal services receive high-quality assistance," LSC President Helaine M. Barnett said.

Click here for more information.

back to top ^

Hawaii Legal Aid Leader to Join LSC's Office of Program Performance

Charles Greenfield
Charles Greenfield

LSC is pleased to announce that Charles "Chuck" Greenfield, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, will join LSC's Office of Program Performance (OPP) as a Program Counsel, effective January 21. He will join his new colleagues in OPP as they work to ensure that LSC-funded programs provide the highest quality legal services to their clients.

Greenfield has no lack of experience in this area, as the program he has led since 2006 is the premier legal aid organization in the state, and has been at the forefront of successful efforts to draw an ever-increasing amount of attention to the unmet civil legal needs of Hawaii's poor.

As a member of the Access to Justice Hui, Greenfield worked with other members of the group-including representatives from the courts, the state bar association, law schools and other legal aid programs-to issue a report in November 2007 showing that nearly 80 percent of the legal needs of low-income Hawaiians go unmet every year. Partly as a result of the group's work, the Hawaii Supreme Court established a formal Access to Justice Commission six months later.

Prior to joining Hawaii's legal aid society, Greenfield worked at Legal Services of Northern Virginia, the Micronesian Legal Services Corporation, and the Legal Aid Society of Santa Clara County in California.

back to top ^

Two More LSC-Funded Programs Adopt Pro Bono Resolutions

The Boards of Directors of Dakota Plains Legal Services, of South Dakota, and Legal Services of Northwest Minnesota have adopted resolutions aimed at increasing the involvement of private attorneys in the delivery of legal services to their clients, bringing to 99 the total number of 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."

Click here for the full list of LSC-funded programs who have adopted pro bono resolutions.

back to top ^

Field News

Economic Downturn Sends IOLTA Funding Into Free Fall

News Outlets Around the Country Highlight the Issue

The latest news in legal aid is the same old story with a new twist. Funding crises are hardly a novelty for legal aid programs, which constantly struggle to serve their clients with skeletal budgets, but the recent free fall in revenue from Interest on Lawyers Trust Account programs is a particularly crushing blow-one that was largely unexpected.

Since the early 1980's, when the first IOLTA programs were established, funding from the programs has steadily grown to become the second single largest source of revenue for legal aid organizations nationwide. In the last few years, the future of the funding source was looking brighter and brighter, as efforts were made to mandate participation in the programs and to increase interest rates on the accounts. But then the nation's economy began to crumble, dragging IOLTA down with it. When the subprime mortgage crisis struck, people stopped buying houses, which meant lawyers stopped making real estate transactions-the largest contributors to IOLTA accounts. Then the Federal Reserve started slashing the federal fund rate, which is linked to the rates for IOLTA accounts, making the situation even grimmer.

The result is that legal aid programs across the country are laying off attorneys and closing offices, but this crisis is not about lawyers losing their jobs, it's about more poor Americans being unable to avail themselves of the crucial legal services they need to escape from domestic violence, prevent homelessness from eviction or foreclosure, and access life-saving public benefits to which they are legally entitled.

News outlets around the country are taking notice of the problem, and everyone from the New York Times to the Wisconsin Law Journal is highlighting the issue.

  • In Connecticut, the New Haven Register reports that IOLTA funding in 2009 will be half of what it was last year, which has forced the local legal aid program to cut three paralegal positions and contemplate a six-month, 20 percent pay cut for all attorneys to avoid layoffs.
  • For the Legal Aid Society of Columbus, Ohio, layoffs are already a reality. The Columbus Dispatch reports that the program has been forced to cut seven attorney positions and may lose more as a result of an $11.6 million loss in IOLTA funding from 2007 to 2008.
  • The Milwaukee-based Legal Action of Wisconsin is also planning layoffs as a result of a 50 percent loss of IOLTA funding. The Wisconsin Law Journal reports that the program will probably have to cut as much as 13 staff positions.
  • In Kentucky, the Lexington Herald-Leader reports that the state's four LSC-funded programs are suffering from decreasing IOLTA revenue, but may also see their funding from the state legislature cut by more than 80 percent.
  • On the West Coast, IOLTA programs are expecting funds to decrease in Oregon by 66 percent in 2009, and by 33 percent in Washington, according to Oregon's Mail Tribune and the Associated Press.

The editorial boards of some major papers are urging state governments-many of which are going through tough financial times of their own-to step in and staunch the bleeding with an infusion of state funds.

  • The New York Times said on Jan. 2 that Governor Patterson should restore funding for civil legal services that was eliminated in his recent budget proposal, arguing that "outlays for civil legal services are budgetary pennies that save many dollars....The Legislature and Mr. Paterson must take care to save money by spending a little more in the right places, like civil legal services."
  • In Massachusetts, where IOLTA funding declined by nearly 40 percent during 2008, according to the group that administers the program, the Boston Globe points out, "Legal aid is the type of counter-cyclical' service that is most needed when state revenues are at their lowest. When the economy recovers, returns on the lawyers' trust accounts should improve. But right now, government needs to step in to ensure the poorest residents get justice in civil courts."

For more information on IOLTA programs, visit www.iolta.org, a joint project of the National Association of IOLTA Programs and the American Bar Association's Commission on IOLTA.

back to top ^

Rhode Island Supreme Court Makes IOLTA Program Mandatory

For some good news on the IOLTA front, the Providence Journal reports that the Rhode Island Supreme Court has ruled that all lawyers in the state must now participate in the Interest on Lawyers Trust Account program, a move which should increase revenue for the state's legal services organizations. Previously, lawyers could opt-out of the program, a route that about 35 percent of attorneys chose to take. The court also ruled that lawyers are required to keep their IOLTA accounts in banks that offer interest rates comparable to accounts of similar size, another move designed to increase the strength of the program. The Rhode Island Bar Foundation, which distributes IOLTA funding, made a total of $1.6 million in grants to legal services programs in 2008, including the LSC-funded Rhode Island Legal Services.

Click here for more information.

back to top ^

Wisconsin High Court Votes to Create Access to Justice Commission

As the ability of the state's legal aid programs to adequately serve their clients becomes increasingly threatened by plummeting revenue from the Interest on Lawyers Trust Account program, the Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed in a near-unanimous vote to create an access to justice commission that would work to improve the availability of civil legal services to the state's poor. Wisconsin's Journal Sentinel reports that the court voted 6-0, with one Justice abstaining, to direct court staff to collaborate with the state bar association to draft an order authorizing the new group. Though the court agreed on the need for such an organization, there was no consensus on how the program would be funded or staffed, or who would serve on its board of directors. Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson predicted that an impending $5 billion two-year budget deficit will make it unlikely that state funding will be forthcoming.

Click here for more information.

back to top ^

Kansas Woman Scammed by Fake Legal Aid Group

When a woman in Wichita, Kansas, wanted to file for divorce, she dialed directory assistance and asked for "legal aid," expecting to be transferred to the LSC-funded Kansas Legal Services, which provides free legal assistance to low-income residents throughout the state. Instead she was sent to an out-of-state company that took $450 from her without providing any assistance. The local ABC News affiliate in Wichita reports that when Angie Alvey, who works two jobs and is on a tight budget, first contacted the so-called legal aid program, they e-mailed her some paperwork and asked her to pay a $449 fee, but was told that the company's credit card machine was broken, and that mailing or dropping off a check would not work either. She was asked to wire the money, which she did, and then never heard from "legal aid" again. Marilyn Harp, executive director of Kansas Legal Services, is upset that her program's name and reputation are being used to exploit the very people they are trying to help. According to the news report, Colorado's Attorney General filed suit against the fraudulent company in 2008, and is actively working to shut down the organization wherever it operates.

Click here for more information.

back to top ^

PSLawNet: NALP's Free Recruiting Resource for Legal Aid Groups

The National Association for Law Placement has launched an enhanced version of its Public Service Law Network at www.pslawnet.org, a website where legal aid programs, government organizations and other public interest legal groups can post job openings and easily manage their recruitment efforts-completely free of charge. Over 90 percent of the country's ABA-accredited law schools subscribe to the site, giving their students and alumni-nearly 100,000 registered users-free access to employer profiles and job listings. New PSLawNet features allow employers to accept applications directly through the site, allow multiple users at an employer organization to manage job listings, and let users browse other employer profiles and job listings. For more information, contact NALP at pslawnet@nalp.org or (202) 296-0076.

Click here to visit the Public Service Law Network.

back to top ^

Legal Aid of West Virginia's Domestic Violence Project Awarded

West Virginia Record – December 17, 2008

No good deed goes...unrewarded.

The West Virginia Legal Assistance to Victims Partnership, a joint effort of Legal Aid of West Virginia and the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, has been selected as the 2008 "Celebrating Solutions Award" recipient by the Mary Byron Foundation of Louisville, Ky.

Along with the recognition of receiving the award, the Partnership will receive a $10,000 cash prize for their pioneering efforts.

The Mary Byron "Celebrating Solutions Award" recognizes institutions that demonstrate an innovative approach to confronting the root causes of domestic violence and developing solutions to break the cycle.

The West Virginia Legal Assistance to Victims Partnership provides comprehensive court based advocacy and legal representation to victims of domestic violence.

The Mary Byron 'Celebrating Solutions Award' was named for Mary Byron, who on her 21st birthday, was killed by her ex-boyfriend after he was released on bail for violent crimes committed against her. Mary's murder was a catalyst for change in her home state of Kentucky, where the first automated system was developed to notify crime victims when their offender is released from custody.

Click here for the full article.

back to top ^

What's New on LSC Resource Information

The LSC Resource Information (LRI) is an online clearinghouse of best practices, model projects, and other resources for LSC-funded programs.

Utah Legal Services' Family Law Wiki

Utah Legal Services has made its 1,600-page Domestic Law Manual available as a Wiki, a shared web space where different contributors can collaborate to expand or improve a document or body of knowledge. The manual covers all aspects of family law handled by the program, including adoption, guardianship, domestic violence, divorce and child custody. The Wiki also includes links to short training videos on different aspects of family law. Utah Legal Services hopes that making the manual available as a Wiki will improve access to it and will also help recruit and train pro bono attorneys, while still retaining control of who can contribute to the project. Legal services staff, members of the state bar's family law section, and law students work together to update the manual.

Click here for more information.

back to top ^

Success Story from Legal Aid of Western Missouri

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 Helps Good Samaritan Avoid Deportation

Suzanne Gladney, an immigration attorney for Legal Aid of Western Missouri, first met "Ernesto" in 1999 when he was behind bars awaiting deportation to his native Mexico. She last saw him at his final deportation hearing in 2008, where he was granted permanent residency status in the U.S. as a result of an astounding display of good citizenship.

Ernesto had been living illegally in the U.S. with his wife and daughter-U.S. citizens-while eagerly awaiting the outcome of a petition his wife had filed to change his citizenship status. He was sharing the house of a 76-year-old woman who had emigrated from Poland following World War Two. The two had immediately bonded following a chance encounter at a restaurant, where they discussed their shared experiences coming to America to find a better life.

One day in 1999, Ernesto arrived home to find his friend and housemate stabbed to death, with the assailant still on the premises. He chased the killer for over a mile before catching him, suffering stab wounds to the chest and face during the ordeal. A passing motorist witnessed the scuffle and called the police, who arrested the suspect-a person also wanted for a string of local burglaries.

Though he knew that coming forward as a witness could jeopardize his ability to stay in the country, Ernesto wanted justice for his friend. He approached authorities and told them what had happened. Eventually, the publicity surrounding the case caught the attention of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which arrested Ernesto and initiated deportation proceedings.

While he was in the Kansas City immigration detention center waiting to learn his fate, Ernesto met Gladney, who was conducting a routine "know-your-rights" session for the detainees. After hearing his incredible story-and learning that LSC regulations allowed her to represent him-Gladney immediately called the prosecutor in the murder case and told him that his star witness was about to be deported. At the request of the prosecutor, Ernesto was released from jail and was allowed to remain in the country while the murder trial proceeded.

In 2002, thanks to Ernesto's testimony, his friend's killer was sentenced to life in prison with no parole. Over the next six years, Gladney worked tirelessly to help Ernesto adjust his status. During his final deportation hearing in 2008, Gladney said in her closing statement, "Our urban communities don't have many people willing to risk their own life to chase down a murderer because it's the right thing to do. His wife and daughter need Ernesto to stay; his community needs Ernesto; our urban communities need more people like Ernesto." The judge agreed, and Ernesto was granted permanent residency status.

Click here for more information on Legal Aid of Western Missouri.

back to top ^