On January 23-25, LSC held its 2005 Technology Initiative Grant (TIG) conference in Austin, Texas. The annual conference brings together new and continuing TIG grantees, and other interested LSC programs. This year there were just under 100 participants, about one-third of whom were not current TIG grantees but were interested in the information available at the conference. For three days, the attendees networked with each other and participated in workshops on the latest trends in technology and issues specific to implementation of their grants, including a session on how to evaluate their grants and report that information to LSC. Without question, the TIG program attracts some of the most energetic, creative, and innovative thinkers in the legal services community who are using their talents to find ways to deliver legal services and information more effectively and efficiently.
On the first day of the conference, LSC President Helaine M. Barnett gave the opening remarks and held a luncheon discussion to share with the attendees LSC's continued support of the TIG program. Ms. Barnett sought their input on LSC's development of a strategic technology plan, and their ideas on what LSC should focus on in its current evaluation of the TIG program. LSC is in the process of assessing its work and its grantees' work under the TIG program, and hopes to have preliminary data later this spring.
The National Association for Law Placement (NALP) is conducting its biennial survey of public interest and government law offices around the country to publish a comprehensive report on compensation earned by public sector lawyers. The Legal Services Corporation-in keeping with its focus on program quality, recruitment and retention of legal services staff, and forming partnerships with other organizations interested in these issues-supports this very important undertaking, and encourages its grantees to participate.
According to NALP, the final report will display attorney salary and benefit packages based on type of employment (including attorneys general, civil legal services, district attorneys, public defenders, etc.), length of employment experience, as well as by geography and area population (urban centers, rural areas, etc.). The report serves as a unique tool for employers - as they set their salary scales – as well as attorneys and law students who are interested in public sector employment.
Participation in the survey process is, in fact, very easy. NALP will be distributing hard copies of the survey in late February. You may also complete an online version of the survey – a web link will follow in a later announcement. NALP will collect respondent data and publish the report later this year. All survey participants will receive a free electronic copy of the final report and will be able to purchase hard copies at a reduced rate. Please look out for the survey in the mail in late February, and contact Steve Grumm, NALP's Director of Public Service Initiatives, with any questions at email@example.com or 202-296-0057. (Survey results will be presented in the aggregate. Specific information received from each participating office will be held confidentially, and no organization will be identified individually in the survey).
A major redevelopment plan for the struggling city of Camden, N.J., was dealt a court setback Monday over a procedural issue that will delay the project, participants in the case said.
A Superior Court judge said a 2004 ordinance that allowed the Cramer Hill plan was not valid because experts who testified for the ordinance before the city's planning board had not been sworn in.
Judge Michael J. Kassel's decision came on the first day of a trial that had residents and businesses from the 450-acre redevelopment site, who would be displaced, challenging the use of eminent domain to redevelop a blighted area.
Olga Pomar of South Jersey Legal Services, which is representing three neighborhood associations, said the decision could set the plan back two years. About 1,000 residents would be displaced. "It's a couple more years that my clients get to live in their homes," she said.
If the decision is not successfully appealed, the ordinance would have to go back to the Camden's planning board and then be reapproved by the city, Polmar said.
In that time, she said, developer Cherokee Camden and the city could decide not to pursue the development.
Aiming to make a measurable impact on the places they work and live, eight Xerox Corporation employees are taking sabbaticals to tackle full-time community service projects throughout 2006 - while their full pay continues from Xerox.
For up to a year, the employees will apply their technical, business and personal skills to address a range of social issues, such as advocating for abused children, supporting military families, improving emergency response systems, and more.
The leaves of absence are part of The Xerox Foundation's long-standing Social Service Leave initiative, which has granted sabbaticals of up to one year to 469 employees since the program began in 1971. One of few corporate sabbatical programs that provide paid opportunities for employees to volunteer full-time, Social Service Leave is believed to be the oldest of its kind in American business.
Under the leave, the eight Xerox people will work for nonprofit agencies in seven states to accomplish projects of the employees' design and choosing. The 2006 Xerox Social Service Leave participants [include]:
* Judy E. Sarmiento, account associate, Oakland, Calif.: 12 months with California Indian Legal Services, which provides legal representation and other services to low-income people, to provide training, technical assistance, outreach materials, fundraising and more.
The Micronesian Legal Services disclosed that its annual funding has dropped to a point where it now finds it hard to sustain services to indigent residents needing legal assistance.
MLS director attorney Jane Mack said the agency gets only about $66,000 per year these days-a huge drop when compared to what it used get from the local government several years ago.
Mack said the agency used to get at least $200,000 from the local government in the mid-'90s. With no new budget being enacted in the last three years, Mack said they have been stuck with the same amount every year.
Seven disabled, sick and low-income elderly Marylanders denied Medicaid long-term care services-including help with eating, medication management, toileting, bathing and mobility-filed a lawsuit [January 18] against the state.
The lawsuit, filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court against the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, claims Maryland uses a stricter criteria than what federal law allows, thus improperly denying the plaintiffs the critical health care services they need.
The plaintiffs, who range in age from 75 to 88, hail from Baltimore City, Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Montgomery, Queen Anne's, and Worcester counties. Each has requested -- and been denied -- long-term health care services. All the plaintiffs suffer from some combination of dementia, chronic heart failure, diabetes, incontinence, take multiple medications, or have difficulty performing the normal activities of daily living.
"The law provides that low-income older adults who suffer from mental and physical conditions can receive health-related services above the level of room and board," said [Legal Aid Bureau] attorney Regan Bailey. "Imposing criteria that restricts that care until a person is in need of extremely intensive health care is not only illegal, it robs our family and friends of their safety and dignity.
"If the state's criteria are not changed, our clients will continue to deteriorate," she continued. "Many may end up in the hospital because they did not get the care they needed to maintain their health."
America has a justice gap.
A recent study by the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) entitled "Documenting the Justice Gap in America-The Current Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-Income Americans" examined three indicators of the legal needs of the nation's low-income population.
Those included data provided by legal aid programs nationally, recent comprehensive legal needs studies undertaken in nine states, and an analysis of the number of legal aid lawyers compared to the total number of attorneys providing civil legal assistance to the nation's general population.
The comprehensive legal needs studies done in some states demonstrate that less than 20 percent of legal need is being met. Comparing the number of legal aid attorneys to the population eligible for help, it was determined that there is only one legal aid attorney for every 6,861 low-income persons. By contrast, the ratio of attorneys delivering civil legal assistance to the general population is approximately one for every 525 persons.
Iowa Legal Aid participated in the study. What was found was that while Iowa Legal Aid closed over 19,000 cases in 2004, helping an estimated 45,000 Iowans, the data generated as a part of this study found that the program turns away approximately 900 persons each month who are seeking legal assistance. Another 700 persons a month receive counsel and advice or brief service, but not the full range of services needed to resolve their legal problems.
The results in both Iowa and nationally show a significant shortage of civil legal assistance available to low-income Americans. The LSC "unable to serve" study documents that on average, for every client served nationally, one is turned away.
It is clear from this research that at least 80 percent of the civil legal needs of low-income Americans are not being met. Moreover, an average of 50 percent of the eligible people seeking assistance from LSC-funded programs in areas in which the programs provide service are being turned away due to lack of program resources.
These statistics are much more devastating when one understands the impact on people's lives. Victims of domestic violence stay in abusive homes; families and children may become homeless or live in unsafe conditions; and elderly individuals do not receive adequate health care. When low-income individuals go to court without an attorney, they are confronted by a complex court system which presents a major challenge for them. Increases in the number of unrepresented litigants are also effecting the court system's operations and ultimately the community at large.
Although state and private support for legal aid has increased recently, stagnant federal funding and growing poverty have served to raise the need for legal help. Failing to address the justice gap will result in greater social costs and ruined lives for our most vulnerable citizens. It will also imperil our system of justice and undermine faith in our nation's institutions, thereby impacting all Americans.
Art Neu is a member of the board of directors of Iowa Legal Aid, a partner in the law firm of Neu, Minnich, Comito and Neu, PC and a former Lt. Governor.
Attorney E. Stewart Jones gets passionate when he talks about making legal services available to the needy.
"Lawyers and law firms have an ethical responsibility to guarantee equal access to the courts for the poor," Jones said.
Jones is leading an effort to have lawyers in the Capital Region support the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York through financial pledges. Legal Aid provides representation to those who can't afford it.
The Justice For All Campaign, in its second year, seeks $200 each from area attorneys to enable Legal Aid to hire more lawyers to handle its growing caseload. Currently, the agency has 28 full-time attorneys and one part-time.
Last year's drive netted $130,000, and most of the large firms made multi-year commitments, according to Deanne Grimaldi, Legal Aid's development director. This year's campaign runs through the end of the month.
"How about a lifetime commitment?" Jones suggests. He and attorney Arthur J. Siegel are the campaign's co-chairmen.
That would be the best of all worlds, Jones said. "This should be the first priority of a law firm's philanthropic effort. It should be automatic. If lawyers aren't going to set the example in this community, business is not going to follow and government is not going to follow."
It is estimated that if the top 50 firms gave $200 a year per attorney, some $250,000 would be raised.
"We are asking firms to make corporate contributions," with the funds essentially coming from the partners, said attorney Jeffrey S. Baker, Legal Aid board president.
"This should come off the top, be built into the (firm's) budget," said G. Kimball Williams of McNamee, Lochner, Titus & Williams, a past board president.
Lillian Moy is executive director of the nonprofit agency, located on Colvin Avenue in Albany, which represents low-income clients in civil matters in 16 counties. The agency, which operates on a roughly $3 million budget, doubled its service area in the last two years and now stretches from the Catskills to Canada. The expansion came despite a cut in funding both from the federal and state governments.
In 2004, the agency completed 4,800 cases, Moy said. But many, possibly 4,000 clients a year, go unhelped for lack of money and staff. The agency counted in a two-month period last year 667 eligible people who could not be served, Baker said.
Legal Aid lawyers specialize in such areas as family matters, tenants at risk of eviction and people who have problems with the welfare system or Social Security.
An individual who makes $11,900 or less a year is eligible for representation, as is a family of four with $24,180 or less.
"We have a professional obligation to ensure that Legal Aid reaches as many of the poor who need legal services," Jones said.
Lawyers have a responsibility to do pro bono work -- to handle a case free of charge -- and by supporting Legal Aid, it's an attempt to satisfy their responsibility, said Philip H. Gitlen of Whiteman Osterman & Hanna.
In the past, fundraising included phone banks and letter-writing. Not until the end of 2004 was there a "concerted effort to reach out to firms and ask for a specific amount," Jones said.
Similar campaigns have been conducted in other cities, Moy said. Peter Coffey, a past president of the board, came up with the idea after attending a seminar on how to raise money to support legal services, she said.
"I think the Justice For All Campaign is really something special," Moy said. "You don't see doctors banding together for the doctors to service the poor, and I'd like the lawyers in the community to be recognized for this."
C. Lyonel Jones retires at the end of this month after 40 years at the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, the last 38 as executive director. His successor, Colleen Cotter, has been on the job since last summer. But instead of using his last month to bid farewell to friends and tie up loose ends, Jones, 72, has been unexpectedly sidetracked by a broken leg. He is recovering at the Aristocrat Berea Health Care Center, where he talked about his career. Here is part of the conversation:
Tell me about your first days at Legal Aid.
"Well, I had agreed to start with Legal Aid on a Monday, and the  Hough riots broke out on a Friday. And Burt Griffin [the executive director then] called me into his office and said, 'They had a riot out in Hough, and we'd like to provide legal services out there. You worked there as a probation officer and you know your way around, so go out there and start representing people.' And that's what I did."
And how was it?
"I found it to be very exciting. You had a constant caseload. Initially, because of the riots, I worked on a lot of criminal cases. We were interested in trying to make a difference in people's lives, the economic development and social injustices that people were facing. "It gave me a great deal of satisfaction."
Does it amaze you that you've been with Legal Aid for 40 years?
"These 40 years went by as quickly as anything. Just like an old song I used to sing. 'One day you're 2, next day you're 4, the next day you're 20 and walking out the door.' "What made you decide to become executive director?
"It was 1968. I had no intention of doing it, but Burt Griffin had decided to leave the Legal Aid Society to go to Washington, D.C. . . . and his deputy director, Clarence "Buddy" James, had decided to leave to become the law director for [Mayor] Carl Stokes. Burt suggested that [the board] ask me to take the job, and I said, 'OK, I'll do it.' I thought that it was temporary."
"I was the first [minority director] that Cleveland had, and at this point, I'm the only one."
What do you consider the legacy of your years of service to Legal Aid?
"I guess that we all wanted to grow. When I became director, I think we had a half-million [dollar] budget, and when I left we had a $6 million budget. We all wanted to grow in terms of the amount of money that we had, because that determines the number of staff we can have and the number of cases we can handle. I guess we kind of reached that plateau in the early '90s, and after that, federal funding started to shrink...One thing I can say is that we never had a problem of not having enough clients. All of the social service agencies know of Legal Aid. We usually get more people than we have the resources to serve. There was a time when most of the people we were representing were on welfare. Now they're more likely to be working poor."
Did you ever consider joining the private sector and working for a law firm?
"No. To me, Legal Aid is a way of life. It was my raison d'etre."
Why the Legal Aid Society?
"At that time, Jones Day, Squire Sanders and firms like that were not a great option for a person of my color, especially if you did not graduate from what they considered a prestigious law school and make law review. When I came up here, the only black lawyers usually worked at the post office at night and tried to build a practice during the day."
What career advice would you give newly minted lawyers?
"They've got to follow their dreams of what they want to be. Not everybody wants to be a Legal Aid lawyer. I would hope that everybody wants to be an honest lawyer, that everybody wants to treat their clients fairly. You've got to be the best lawyer that you can be. You owe that to your profession. You owe that to your clients. "Clients always ask me, Are we going to win the case?' and I say, I can't tell you that. I'm going to give you the best that I've got, that I can say.'
On January 5, 2006, Legal Services of Greater Miami, Inc. (LSGMI) presented Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart with its Distinguished Alumnus award. The award was presented at LSGMI's 40th Anniversary Campaign Kickoff Event sponsored by Mellon Bank.
"Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart has always been a friend of Legal Services and a supporter of Equal Justice," said Frank Angones, President-elect of The Florida Bar, who introduced the Congressman at the event.
In his remarks, the Congressman praised his experience as an LSGMI staff attorney, which he described in his 1981 resignation letter as "influencing me to an extent I never dreamed it would." In that letter, he also thanked LSGMI "for having opened my eyes to a reality which I otherwise may never have seen. It is and will continue to be my responsibility to do something about that reality."
In presenting the Distinguished Alumnus Award, LSGMI Executive Director Marcia K. Cypen thanked the Congressman for his continuing sensitivity to and compassion for the low income community, and for his ongoing efforts to support Equal Justice.
Consider these two adages: Owning your own home is the American Dream, and if it sounds too good to be true, it usually IS too good to be true.
Advocates worry that low-income taxpayers are paying too much attention to the first and not enough to the second, as predatory lending practices promise to make them homeowners, but instead put them in far worse financial shape than they were before.
Bad lenders aggressively target low-income neighborhoods, offering loans based on inflated appraisals with high annual interest rates and payments the borrower cannot afford. The terms can practically guarantee default and foreclosure.
Indiana Legal Services and other community groups, are teaming up to educate residents about predatory lending. Legal experts on a "victim rescue" team will review loans, refer cases of suspected fraud to the Indiana attorney general's office, or to other agencies, and negotiate fairer terms with the lender, in some instances. Other states and communities are working to stop unfair lending practices that target the poor.
Norman Metzger, executive director of Indiana Legal Services, warns consumers to stay away from predatory lenders.
Referring to mailings from mortgage companies that he commonly receives, he told the Indianapolis Star, "You're pre-approved for a mortgage at 110 percent of your appraised value. What does that mean?...If it's too good to be true, it's probably not true."
Residents who have been displaced for more than five months since an August blaze say they have been left in limbo over what will become of the downtown Hamilton apartment building they once called home.
Leslie LaCroix is among more than 10 residents still staying at a Monroe's Parkside Inn following the Aug. 3 arson that left Miami Manor Apartments on Second Street uninhabitable. The fire was the third arson to occur at the federally subsidized facility in a two-week span, according to local officials.
Since then, LaCroix said, the apartment's management team - Emerson Group - and owners - Apartment Investment and Management Company (AIMCO) - have left residents in the dark about their plans to repair the four-story apartment complex.
"We're in limbo here. They haven't told us anything," LaCroix said. "It's not right. I have no idea what I'm supposed to do."
Attorneys with the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati said AIMCO has been dragging its feet on the issue. Legal Aid is planning to meet with residents today.
"AIMCO does have a duty to make repairs in a reasonable time frame and they haven't done that here," said Nick DiNardo, an attorney with Legal Aid. "We want to evaluate the situation, see what the tenants want and then advocate what to AIMCO. The people who are still at Parkside want to have some sort of housing in the city of Hamilton."
A facility that receives rental subsidy from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Miami Manor's ownership group is the nation's leading property owner of project-based Section 8 housing.
Meanwhile, health code violations have been issued against the ownership group for failing to repair and secure the burned building, said city officials.
Since the fire, LaCroix said most of her belongings - like many of her neighbors' - have been left in the building.
On a recent trip back to her apartment, LaCroix said her room had been vandalized. Others, she said, have reported items missing from their rooms.
Following the Aug. 3 blaze more than 20 tenants were sent to stay at Parkside Inn while repairs were made to the apartment complex.
After three months residents were still unaware what might become of their Hamilton home.
Then, on Nov. 7 AIMCO offered to relocate residents to one of its Dayton-based properties. The offer came a day after the JournalNews reported that little had been done since an August arson. For some tenants, however, moving to Dayton was not an option.
"I'm not moving to Dayton. Miami Manor is my home, why would I want to go to Dayton?" asked LaCroix, who has lived at the apartment complex for three years. "They haven't offered us anything else or offered to help us move our stuff if we want to go somewhere else."
The Texas Bar Foundation has awarded a $25,000 grant to the nonprofit Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas to fund two full-time staff attorneys who will handle disaster relief. Under the Legal Aid Disaster Relief project, the attorneys will help families and individuals deal with legal matters related to recent natural disasters, including Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The lawyers will counsel clients about issues including housing, jobs, government assistance, public education, immigration and insurance.
Legal Aid generally provides free civil legal aid to low-income residents in North and West Texas. Hurricane evacuees who now live in the Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas service area can call Candra Stewart in Fort Worth at 817-336-3943 and MaryAnn D'Aniello in Dallas at 214-220-7411 or visit www.lanwt.org.
To help meet the mounting legal needs of low-income victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Texas Appleseed and the Texas Equal Access to Justice Foundation today announced plans to implement a Lend-A-Lawyer program to add staff to overburdened legal aid offices in Texas.
The law firm of Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw LLP will underwrite a year-long fellowship position in support of the Lend-A-Lawyer program. The Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw Legal Fellow will be housed at Texas Appleseed and will design and coordinate the program.
"In the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, it is estimated that Texas absorbed more than 250,000 hurricane evacuees from Louisiana and Mississippi," said Jim George, chair of Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit public interest law center. "A majority of them will be residing in Texas for the foreseeable future, placing unprecedented demands on legal aid offices to help address complex issues such as property loss, housing needs, child custody and child support, interrupted public benefits, and bankruptcy claims."
Legal aid organizations close about 100,000 cases each year, but they do not have the resources to help everyone who needs and qualifies for free legal assistance. A recent study confirmed that for every one person assisted by legal aid, a qualified applicant is turned away. However, the study was conducted prior to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita; since the disasters, legal aid programs have seen a significant increase in applicants. The Lend-A-Lawyer program was conceived as a way to bridge the gap between the need for services and available resources.
The Texas Equal Access to Justice Foundation, the largest Texas-based funder of legal aid in the state, will work with Texas Appleseed to support the Lend-A-Lawyer program. The Foundation has been instrumental in the creation and development of the program.
"The Texas Equal Access to Justice Foundation is pleased to have a role in this partnership," said Betty Balli Torres, executive director of the Foundation. "We are able to use the strengths of each organization to help increase desperately needed resources to provide legal services to victims of the two devastating hurricanes."
The Lend-A-Lawyer program coordinator will recruit the state's major law firms to lend associates on a rotating basis in 2006 to assist in staffing legal aid offices, hot lines and legal referral services in Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Dallas and other Texas cities.
Tomar Brown, a summer associate with the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland the past two years, has been selected as an Equal Justice Works Fellow. She will focus on education advocacy for juveniles in the justice system. Brown is a third-year law student at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. She is the first Case law student to receive the fellowship.
Just hours after Christie Thurmond Harris was shot to death last year by her estranged husband, a letter she had written arrived in the state prosecutor's office.
"If something happens to me, I want you to know who is doing all of this harm to me," her desperate letter said. "Ultimately I do not feel this Order has protected me at all."
Thurmond Harris' situation is widely viewed as a worst-case scenario and as a motivational guide for those in the legal system trying to improve the plight of victims of domestic violence.
Among them are those involved in a $900,000 two-year federal grant program designed to bring stricter enforcement of protective orders by aggressively going after offenders.
"If they're having problems with enforcement of an order of protection, now there's a better way to enter the system so we don't have more Christie Thurmonds or Jennifer Braddocks," said managing attorney Sonja White of the Domestic Violence Project at Memphis Area Legal Services. "We're going to find out what's going on. You stalk her, we stalk you."
Jennifer Braddock, a Memphis woman who was killed in a domestic dispute in 2003, was memorialized last year with legislation bearing her name that made violation of a protective order a criminal misdemeanor -- with punishment of up to 11 months and 29 days in jail -- rather than a civil contempt charge with a maximum punishment of 10 days in jail.
Orders of protection are issued by judges to keep spouses, ex-spouses and partners away from people they have threatened or abused. The orders are designed to stop further violence, although that often does not happen.
Local law enforcement receives some 600 reports of domestic violence each month, and more than 300 requests for protective orders are reviewed each month by the Shelby County Domestic Violence Court.
Last year 23 killings involved people who were related or who lived together.
The grant program provides for a team of two police officers, two sheriff's deputies, a prosecutor, a pretrial services counselor and a nongovernmental advocate.
The goal is to better identify brewing trouble and to discourage or prosecute the troublemaker before a series of seemingly small incidents leads to a serious act of violence.
"If a victim doesn't have a lawyer, the chances of getting an order of protection are slimmer because they have to make their own case, present their own evidence ..." said White. "Here we help them make the case for enforcement of the order. Every aspect of that person's encounter (with the justice system) will be covered."
Webb Brewer, director of litigation at MALS, said the addition of two full-time police officers working solely on such cases should have an impact on how orders are enforced as well as how they are seen by offenders.
"The extra officers can focus on enforcing orders by doing things like staking out a house and seeing if he did show up," he said.
"They can go out and really do something about it and not just tell somebody to stay away or don't come back. It really will enhance enforcement."
A grant renewal is in the works and there is hope more officers can be added.
On a sunny day in late November, Marisa Katz drives east from downtown New Orleans to Chalmatte, one of the areas most ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. Houses stand forlornly along the road, their windows broken and insides gutted. Gas stations and stores are boarded up. There are no pedestrians in sight.
Katz, a 28-year-old attorney with New Orleans Legal Assistance (NOLAC), pulls into the edge of a shopping center next to a large white tent, one of the disaster relief centers set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She walks through the tent door past a pair of swaggering men in military fatigues. They are members of Blackwater USA, a private security contractor known for its work in Iraq, who have been hired to guard FEMA staff. Yet the people who trudge into the center are hardly threatening as they wait for hours to fill out applications for trailers and financial aid.
Wedged between groups offering Medicaid and insurance information, Katz and her NOLAC colleagues take four-hour shifts, answering questions and signing up clients who can't afford a lawyer. A woman stops by whose mortgage company had dropped her flood insurance coverage. An elderly couple asks if they should continue paying their mortgage since they won't be rebuilding their house.
"Being part of Legal Assistance has been psychologically helpful," Katz tells the reporter accompanying her. She recalls talking to a young man who found his parents drowned in their attic. "There are a million stories like that," she says.
The primary legal aid group in New Orleans, NOLAC provides a lifeline for the legions of hurricane victims now being cut a raw deal by landlords and insurance companies. NOLAC lawyers are especially sensitive because they, too, have been devastated by the storm. Seventy-five percent of the group's employees lost their houses, and many had to leave the city, reducing the number of staff attorneys from 30 to 23.
"When you've lost your own home, it's hard to think straight," says Mark Moreau, a 28-year veteran-and co-executive director-of NOLAC. Moreau, whose house was engulfed in a seven-foot wall of water, is living with relatives. "It's so hard to get things done without computers and e-mail and support staff and with the courts being closed," he says.
The group also lost its Chalmatte outpost in the storm, and did not return to the site of the wreckage until early December. Wearing masks, Katz, Moreau, and two other staffers slogged through thick mud up to their second-floor office to find the ceilings and one wall caved in. They were able to salvage a few papers among the moldy files.
Founded in 1967, NOLAC receives most of its $3.3 million annual funding from Legal Services Corp., a nonprofit established by Congress to give poor people access to lawyers. Before Katrina hit, NOLAC had 3,000 cases, ranging from housing and workplace disputes to domestic violence cases and child custody battles. Their clients have now scattered around the country, along with witnesses and opposing attorneys, so most of these matters are on hold indefinitely.
In its new incarnation, NOLAC is now primarily helping people fight evictions. More than 10,000 people were reportedly evicted in November, after Governor Kathleen Blanco's two-month moratorium on legal proceedings came to an end. With housing scarce, landlords who had been renting property for $375 per month can now get $1,000 from construction workers contracted by FEMA.
It's an uphill struggle for the public defenders. For example, NOLAC won a victory in mid-November, when a judge ruled that the residents of a trailer park could not be removed for nonpayment of rent. But afterward the landlord served the residents a ten-day notice to leave. "There's little defense to no-cause evictions," Moreau says. "All we can do is buy them some time."
In 1970 Charles Crump and Irvin Bogatin were well-established Memphis attorneys.
Mike Cody was a lawyer still early in his career. Harrison McIver was about to enter Morehouse College with plans to become a lawyer focusing on legal aid work.
Today, they can all claim some ownership in the creation and continued success of Memphis Area Legal Services. They were among 30 lawyers and students who formed the agency to provide free legal services to poor, disfranchised clients, and which this year celebrated its 35th anniversary.
"I give a lot of credit to those 30 lawyers and law students who wanted to do something in response to the upheaval and tragedy of Dr. King's death," McIver, who is now MALS executive director, said of the agency's founders. "These were white males who, in the South, wanted to do something constructive and to use the profession to serve humanity."
MALS got going in 1970, but even before then the need was obvious, said Crump, 92, the oldest practicing attorney in the Memphis bar.
During the sanitation workers strike of 1968 he and several other business leaders met with civil rights leader Rev. James Lawson one Saturday afternoon at Centenary United Methodist Church, then on Mississippi Boulevard, to discuss the situation.
During the gathering, Crump was amazed that Lawson would take so much time from his Sunday preparations to speak with them and answer questions.
"His response was 'you are the first white people who have asked to speak to us since this strike began,'" Crump said. "That struck us like a ton of bricks."
Meanwhile, King had been represented by Cody's firm, and after King's assassination Cody began to wonder about the problems of the sanitation workers as well as the lack of legal services for people in a community "who really weren't getting a fair shake."
Cody floated his idea for a legal aid office with area lawyers and Lawson offered the use of his church.
About 30 local attorneys agreed to come to the church after regular office hours and on Saturdays and Sundays to provide free legal services. They hired a secretary to keep up with the paperwork.
"It was very surprising to us just how many people would show up," said attorney Ed Kaplan during a recent panel discussion with some of the MALS founders. "They showed up in droves. There was clearly an unmet need."
They ran the program with volunteer lawyers until Crump and Bogatin were able to help them get $250,000 in federal funds to finance it.
"We could actually hire lawyers, mainly young lawyers interested in doing poverty work," said Cody, 69.
They also hired the future Judge George Brown as executive director.
MALS met with some opposition, Cody said, but it wasn't based on race.
Some older lawyers didn't like the idea of accepting federal money. In addition, some disagreed with the notion that there were people in need of a lawyer who couldn't get one.
"I think one of the things our office down there showed in the early months is we were inundated with people who otherwise weren't able to get a lawyer," Cody said. "Once the newspapers publicized the fact the office was there we had more people than we could handle. I think that helped to convince the bar lawyers that the need was there."
MALS turned to Bogatin when Brown left his post as executive director.
Brown recommended to Bogatin a lawyer who was working at the time in Lebanon, Tenn. -- now Shelby County Mayor A.C. Wharton.
"George and A.C. both did wonderful jobs," said Bogatin, 90, who is also still practicing law. "They were the ones who really built the office."
Over the years, MALS has had challenges in local fund-raising and in getting enough lawyers to do free legal work.
On a larger scale, federal restrictions imposed by Congress no longer allow legal aid services to handle class action cases or collect attorneys fees in cases where the statute allows for fees to be awarded.
Both situations have had a financial impact on legal aid services such as MALS, McIver said.
McIver, 53, who has worked in the area of legal aid in Mississippi and on a national level in Washington, was hired as MALS executive director in 1998.
"Growing up in the South in the '50s and '60s I saw a lot. I saw injustice as one would imagine," he said. "Because of what this country represents, I felt I could contribute by making what you call a sacrifice, but I call it a life commitment to access to justice."
SUCCESS STORY FROM THE LEGAL AID SOCIETY OF CLEVELAND
(Legal aid is about helping ordinary people with real-life problems. Client stories from the field illustrate the day-to-day struggles - and victories - of poor Americans seeking justice under law.)
LEGAL AID ATTORNEYS ARGUE FOR PROTECTION OF CHILDREN AND WIN
January 13, 2006
On December 29, 2005, the Ohio Court of Appeals (11th District – Lake County), extended the reach of a civil protection order to all children in a household, whether they are abused or are at risk of abuse.
The precedent-setting case involved a Legal Aid client, a mother of four, who sought protection for her children because of abuse by their father.
The civil protection order was initially issued for all four children. The father objected to the magistrate's decision, and the trial court agreed with the father, and limited the civil protection order to only one of the four children. Legal Aid filed an appeal on behalf of the mother and the other three children, and asked that the civil protection order extend to all the children because of the risk of abuse to them.
The Ohio Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, and directed that the civil protection order be extended to all four children: "We agree with [Appellant] that the intent of the domestic violence statute...is to protect the victims of domestic violence and that this protection extends to siblings."
"I believe this decision represents a step forward in preventing the abuse of all children in a family setting and I know that the Court will continue to be, as they have in the past, attentive to this issue.", stated Claire A. Cloud, the Legal Aid attorney who argued the case before the 11th Appellate District. Ms. Cloud practices out of Legal Aid's Painesville office.
"This is a great victory for children who are victims of violence in the home. This decision provides much needed guidance for trial courts in assisting pro se litigants who are usually unaware of the elements of proof required to meet their burden, and enhances their ability to obtain protection for their children," said Tonya Whitsett, an attorney with Legal Aid's Family Law Unit in Cleveland, who assisted Ms. Cloud.
Alexandria Ruden, a Legal Aid attorney with a practice focused on domestic violence issues stated "the importance of this decision is twofold. It is the first appellate court decision to provide a clear standard for determining the correct burden of proof necessary to protect members in a household other that those for whom the protection order is sought. Moreover, it reinforces the authority of the judiciary in attempting to end the cycle of violence in the home."