OUR OPINION: There are creative ways to provide legal aid to Florida’s poor seeking justice in civil matters
The fund that pays for lawyers to represent poor people in civil cases has seen its budget tank 88 percent since 2008. That means the percentage of eligible clients who are turned away, now 20 percent, will certainly rise.
This nation, a beacon of hope for so many around the world for upholding the rule of law for all, is facing a disaster if access to the courts is denied to the poor simply by economics. This is especially true in Florida. It is one of just four states that currently has zero state funding to help low-income people pay lawyers to dodge foreclosure and eviction or secure unemployment or disability benefits.
Where other states charge court filing fees or allocate money from the state budget, Florida does neither. That’s a black eye for the state that led the nation 30 years ago in finding a novel way to pay for lawyers to represent the indigent in civil cases.
Florida’s Legal Aid community still relies on that 1981 funding base: interest-bearing trust accounts — client money lawyers set aside in escrow for short periods of time. Unfortunately, record low interest rates the past few years have created an unsustainable situation.
Some 120 of Florida’s 410 Legal Aid attorneys are expected to lose their jobs. The Legal Aid Service of Broward will cut 20 positions. The 100,000 cases a year that the Florida Bar Foundation funds will drop by at least a third.
So what is Florida doing to ensure access to justice? Not much.
The Foundation is looking into tapping other possible sources of income, such as lawyer donations and class-action settlement awards. But those sources won’t go far enough.
Gov. Rick Scott last year vetoed $1 million that would have gone to help plug the hole in the fund. Legislators, meanwhile, are not moving on any new funding.
It’s no better at the federal level for the Legal Services Corp., another important source of aid for indigent legal clients. Congress has to stop the bloodletting.
The problem is particularly acute in Florida, which risks more homeless families and other dire consequences because poor people can’t afford access to the courts. Legal Aid has a $30 million funding gap. The Florida Bar and the courts have to find a creative solution.
The Florida Supreme Court has yet to charge even a temporary fee for bar dues to show the state Legislature that the legal community will reach into its own pockets as well — as six states have now done. Legal aid groups also ought to consider difficult choices, such as charging sliding scale fees for those able to pay something and claiming a fee from retroactive court settlements.
New York’s chief judge showed trailblazing leadership by allocating funds from the state judiciary’s own coffers.
The timing for such a funding disaster could not be worse. More and more Florida families are facing foreclosure and winding up on the streets.
Make no mistake. Public-interest attorneys’ work matters. Legal aid lawyers helped former Navy intelligence officer Vida Gibson of Pompano Beach get Medicaid in three days, after she had tried for years while struggling with bouts of post traumatic stress disorder and homelessness.
People like them and the one in six Floridians who live in poverty have a right to representation. There is no rule of law if legal services are not available to all.
By the Miami Herald Editorial