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LSC Updates - July 15, 2009

Congressional Action on LSC Sparks Media Coverage

Congressional activity surrounding LSC's appropriation for Fiscal Year 2010 has sparked a series of editorials in major news outlets.

On July 13 the Washington Post published an editorial urging the Senate to provide a higher level of funding for LSC than the $400 million approved by the chamber's Appropriations Committee last month. The figure represents a $10 million increase over current funding levels but is $40 million less than what the House has approved and $35 million less than what President Obama recommends.

"The Senate should move closer to the House number," says the Post, "given the tremendous need for these services and the fact that even the $440 million would essentially only restore LSC's funding to what it was decades ago."

The Post recognized the House's action in a June 22 editorial and The New York Times published a similar editorial the following day.

"At a time when many people are struggling against the threat of foreclosure, eviction or loss of health and unemployment benefits as a result of the economic downturn," said the Baltimore Sun on July 2, "the LSC's services are needed more than ever. Congress should seize this opportunity to make them as widely available as possible."

In response to the Congressional focus on legal aid issues, Alan W. Houseman, director of the Center for Law and Social Policy, has released a report dated July 2009 summarizing the current status of civil legal aid for the poor in the U.S.

Click here to download the report. (PDF icon 212k)

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LSC President Speaks at Southeast Project Directors Meeting

LSC President Helaine M. Barnett delivered an update on activities at the Legal Services Corporation to attendees of the Southeast Project Director and Administrator Annual Meeting, held July 12-15 in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Barnett's remarks included information on congressional action on LSC's appropriation for the next fiscal year and other legislative activity, LSC's new annual report, the Corporation's upcoming 35th anniversary and other initiatives.

Barnett was joined at the meeting by Karen Sarjeant, LSC Vice President for Programs and Compliance, and Willie Abrams, Tillie Lacayo and Glenn Rawdon from LSC's Office of Program Performance. Sarjeant joined Linda Perle from the Center for Law and Social Policy to lead a session on the Office of Compliance and Enforcement's compliance audits of LSC grantees. Rawdon, LSC's Program Counsel for Technology, led a session on innovative uses of technology in legal services programs.

Other sessions focused on innovative partnerships and collaborative projects at legal aid programs, document assembly projects, initiatives aimed at special client populations, employment law, and federal funding opportunities.

The Southeast Project Director and Administrator group is comprised of leaders and key staff from legal aid programs throughout the Southeast. It meets at least once a year to discuss important issues affecting the delivery of legal services in their region.

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Bridge Loans Available for Legal Aid Programs

The Kresge Foundation is offering interest-free bridge loans of $250,000 to $500,000 to legal aid and other human service organizations struggling to meet the increasing demand for their services during the recession.

All U.S.-based non-profit and government entities with financial statements prepared by a certified public accountant and not classified as private foundations are eligible to apply.

Applicants must have been in operation for three years, be on solid financial footing, able to prove a history of stable operation and provide audited financial statements for the past two years.

The foundation's announcement does not include an application deadline but notes that it is "making every attempt to fast-track the application process."

According to its website, the Michigan-based Kresge Foundation is a $3.1 billion private, national foundation that seeks to influence the quality of life for future generations through its support of nonprofit organizations in six fields of interest: health, the environment, community development, arts and culture, education and human services.

Click here for more information.

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Field News

Growing Numbers of Poor People Swamp Legal Aid Offices

Tony Pugh, McClatchy Newspapers – July 9, 2009

After years of funding shortfalls, legal aid societies across the country are being overwhelmed by growing numbers of poor and unemployed Americans who face eviction, foreclosure, bankruptcy and other legal problems tied to the recession.

The crush of new clients comes as the cash-strapped agencies cut staff and services.

The nonprofit Legal Services Corp., which funds more than 900 legal-aid offices nationwide, says that the number of people who qualify for assistance has jumped by about 11 million since 2007, because of the recession. Roughly 51 million people are now eligible for assistance - individuals and families who earn less than 125 percent of the federal poverty level, now set at $27,564 a year for a family of four.

The federal government budgeted an 11 percent increase in funding for legal aid this year. That increase, however, is more than offset by the growing demand for services and a recession-driven decline in state funding, charitable gifts and grants, which together traditionally make up half of legal service funding.

Click here to continue reading.

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Mississippi Legal Aid Programs Facing Funding Shortfalls

Legal aid programs in Mississippi are confronting drastic funding cuts from the state's Interest on Lawyers Trust Account program.

The Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project, a partnership between the state bar and the Mississippi Center for Legal Services that served more than 8,000 people last year, is considering laying off most of its ten-person staff in response to receiving an IOLTA grant more than 50 percent smaller than what it received last year.

"Losing experienced staff and helping fewer people is no fun," says Shirley Williams, executive director of the Project, in a recent Clarion Ledger article. "We will get more calls from helpless individuals...more than we would if the economy was fine."

The Mississippi Center for Legal Services and North Mississippi Rural Legal Services, both LSC grantees, are also facing cuts to their IOLTA grants. Each program received a $1 million grant last year, but will only receive $120,000 this year.

"Everybody is feeling the pinch," said Sam Buchanan, executive director of the Mississippi Center.

Click here for the full article.

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Kansas Legal Services Helps Launch New Medical-Legal Partnership

Kansas Legal Services has partnered with the Kansas University School of Law and the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas to launch a medical-legal partnership aimed at rooting out the legal causes of medical problems suffered by the clinic's low-income patients.

The legal aid program has assigned attorney Patricia Martin to work half-time at the clinic where she and a full-time paralegal receive referrals from medical staff when patients have health problems with legal implications. The program's Pittsburg office also provides support to the project, said Martin, and the law school will assign students to the clinic in the near future.

"Southeast Kansas is one of the poorer areas of the state so there is a great need in this region," said Martin. "This is another opportunity for Kansas Legal Services to reach additional clients."

The project began operating in June and is already proven valuable to the clinic's patients, said Krista Postai, executive director of the health center in a recent article from the Kansas Health Institute News Service.

"When we first got into this, we were asking ourselves Do we really want to do this?'" Postai said. "Now it's We should have been doing this all along.' Our patients think it's too good to be true."

Funding for the partnership was provided by the Sunflower Foundation, a Topeka-based charitable group dedicated to improving the health of Kansans.

Click here for more information.

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Tennessee IOLTA Program Now Mandatory

Tom Bailey Jr., Memphis Commercial Appeal – July 11, 2009

The Tennessee Supreme Court [has] imposed a new rule that should provide more money to help the poor with their legal issues.

When clients hire a lawyer, they typically must put up hundreds or several thousand dollars as a retainer, depending on the case. The money protects the attorneys against their expenses and the law firms place the check into a trust account.

Such accounts can bear interest, but the interest earnings do not go to the clients because allocating them to each client would be a quagmire.

So since 1983, the state Supreme Court has allowed the interest earnings to fund legal help for the poor. The program is called Interest On Lawyer's Trust Accounts.

Over the past 26 years, the accounts have raised $14.4 million in grants for organizations, such as Memphis Area Legal Services, that make justice accessible to the poor.

Until now, law firms were permitted to opt out of the program.

The rule adopted by the Supreme Court on [July 8] requires the interest on all the pooled client funds to go into the program, according to the Tennessee Bar Association.

Click here to continue reading.

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Help is Nigh on the Student Loan Front

Karen Sloan, National Law Journal – June 22, 2009

Moaning about massive student debt is a time-honored tradition among law school graduates.

Some members of the class of 2009 will have less to complain about, however. A new federal program intended to help borrowers manage their student debt [went] into effect on July 1. The legislation-called the College Cost Reduction & Access Act-will cap monthly loan payments according to income and forgive student debt balances after designated periods of time. For attorneys, the main beneficiaries will be those who go on to have long-term public interest careers. But the program will also make loan payments more affordable for all attorneys with high debt loads and relatively low incomes.

"There are a lot of things that are making it tough for new graduates, with the tight job market and the deferrals," said Heather Jarvis, a senior program manager at Equal Justice Works, an organization that encourages attorneys to undertake public interest law careers. "But there has never been a better time to graduate, as far as student loans."

Click here to continue reading.

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Washington Think Tank Hosts Forum on Narrowing the Justice Gap

The Center for American Progress hosted a forum on narrowing the justice gap at its Washington, D.C. offices on July 8. The event, co-sponsored by the Center, the American Constitution Society and the Washington Council of Lawyers, featured two panel discussions focusing on civil legal aid at the national level and in the District of Columbia.

Speakers on the first panel were Peter Edelman, professor at Georgetown University Law Center and chairman of the D.C. Access to Justice Commission, Ted Frank, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, and Don Saunders, director of civil legal services for the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. Joy Moses, policy analyst for the Center's Poverty and Prosperity Program, moderated the panel.

Members of the second panel were Susan M. Hoffman, Public Service Partner at the law firm of Crowell & Moring, Jonathan M. Smith, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, and The Honorable Inez Smith Reid, associate judge of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.

The event coincided with the release of the Center's report, "And Justice for All: Prioritizing Free Legal Assistance During the Great Recession," written by Joy Moses.

The Center for American Progress was founded in 2003 by John D. Podesta, former chief of staff to President Clinton, and is "dedicated to improving the lives of Americans through ideas and action" by "combin[ing] bold policy ideas with a modern communications platform to help shape the national debate," according to the group's website.

Click here for more information.

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Success Story from Puerto Rico Legal Services

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.

Health Coverage Saved for Elderly Couple

Puerto Rico Legal Services has convinced a judge to issue an injunction preventing the island's government from denying public health care coverage to an elderly married couple, according to a July 1 article in the English-language Puerto Rico Daily Sun.

The government claimed the couple was ineligible for the state's health care program because they owned too much land-four cuerdas of land to be exact, the equivalent of slightly less than four acres. Recent reforms to the program require all participants to own no more than one cuerda.

Puerto Rico Legal Services took the case to court, arguing that because the couple's land was essentially valueless-it is situated on rocky cliffs and can not be sold or rented-an exception should be made.

"The problem," said Leo Aldridge, communications director for Puerto Rico Legal Services, "is that the government calculates each cuerda as worth $40,000 in disposable income-without doing a formal real estate appraisal nor taking into account the property's location and condition. According to the government, a two-cuerda beachside property in the capital is worth the same as one in a down-trodden, middle-of-nowhere municipality."

San Juan Superior Court Judge Carlos Dvila Vlez issued an injunction order in the case, preventing the government from denying care to the couple pending settlement of the suit. He said the couple had a high probability of winning their case as the reforms to the health care program were not done in accordance with the law.

Charles Hey Maestre, executive director of the legal aid program, told the Daily Sun, "We are going to be focusing on these types of loopholes. [Dvila Vlez's] decision sets a legal precedent for remedying these sorts of problems."

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