Monthly Archives: March 2009

Legal Aid featured in TV news report on proposed LSC increase

sabonisvideo309WUSA-TV (channel 9) in Washington featured Legal Aid in a news report Friday looking at a bill to increase funding to the federal Legal Services Corp. sponsored by Maryland Senators Benjamin Cardin and Barbara Mikulski.

“When the economy tanks, it’s usually the poor who are hardest hit,” said reporter Bruce Leshan. “Shady debt collection, mortgage fraud, even domestic violence are all up. Often these folks can’t afford a lawyer to help them, but Maryland’s U.S. senators have a new plan to help. They’re proposing to nearly double the funding for little-known agency called the Legal Services Corporation.”

Leshan said people kicked out of their homes have been flooding legal aid organizations with pleas for help.

“Our requests for aid have gone up 100 percent in the last four months,” said Legal Aid Acting Chief Counsel Peter Sabonis (above).

Cardin noted that the U.S. “is a country of the rule of law. And if you don’t have an equal opportunity before our courts, then our whole system really suffers.”

To read the article and view the clip, click here.

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Cardin, Mikulski sponsor bill to nearly double legal services funding

mikulskiWASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski (left) have co-sponsored legislation that would expand and improve vital civil legal aid in this country. The bill would increase funding for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), lift many of the restrictions on LSC-funded attorneys and improve corporate governance at LSC. LSC is one of Maryland Legal Aid’s major funders.

“As the former chairman of the Maryland Legal Services Corporation, I am committed to expanding access to legal services,” said Senator Cardin, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Unfortunately today, many low-income Americans do not have access to justice.  They can’t afford to hire a lawyer or obtain legal assistance for serious problems.  This legislation takes a strong step forward to close this justice gap by eliminating burdensome restrictions on LSC attorneys and by providing adequate funding to LSC.”

“The Legal Services Corporation was created to ensure all Americans have equal access to justice under the law. Because of LSC, poor pregnant women being battered by their husbands have had a lawyer to turn to. Homeowners facing foreclosure have gotten assistance renegotiating their mortgage terms – and staying in their homes. People with disabilities, the elderly, and victims of natural disasters have had a place to turn for legal aid,” Senator Mikulski said.  “With the economic downturn, and increased stress on struggling families, the services LSC provides are needed now more than ever. I am committed to making sure LSC has the funding it needs in the federal checkbook to meet its mission.”

The federal commitment to legal services is not as effective as it needs to be.  In 1974, Congress established the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) – a private, non-profit corporation funded by Congress – to fund civil legal aid.  LSC, however, has not been reauthorized since 1981, and federal funding has been slashed since 1995 – from $415 million to $350 in FY’08, with only a recent increase to $390 million for FY’09.  Congress, moreover, has imposed severe restrictions on the use of both federal as well as non-federal funds – impeding attorneys’ ability to provide the most effective legal assistance.

The Civil Access to Justice Act of 2009 recommits the principle of “Equal Justice Under Law” in five main ways:

·        Increases the authorized funding level for LSC to $750 million, which is approximately the amount appropriated in 1981, adjusted for inflation, which was the high-water mark for LSC funding.  At the time, this level was seen as sufficient to provide a minimum level of access to legal aid in every county.  Adjusted for inflation, this “minimum access” level would need to be about $750 million today.
·        Lifts many of the restrictions currently placed on legal tools that LSC-funded attorneys can use to represent their clients, such as being able to file class action lawsuits and collect attorney’s fees.
·        Lifts most restrictions on the use of non-federal funds.  Lifting these restrictions allows individual states, cities and donors the ability to determine themselves how best to spend non-federal funds to ensure access to the courts.
·        Provides for better governance at LSC.  Recent GAO reports highlighted the need for better corporate governance and oversight.  A central feature of the bill is provisions to improve corporate practices.
·        Authorizes a grant program from the Department of Education to expand law school clinics.  Not only are law students a significant resource for legal services, but clinics are a bridge to careers in legal services and a professional career involving pro bono for young lawyers.
The bill is supported by, among others, the American Bar Association, Brennan Center for Justice, National Legal Aid & Defender Association, National Organization of Legal Service Workers and United Auto Workers.

General Assembly proposes $500,000 cut to legal services funding

Earlier this week, the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Public Safety, Transportation and Environment Subcommittee eliminated $500,000 from the MLSC Fund, clouding an already dire funding dilemma for the organization that funds 38 civil legal services programs across the state (including the largest, Maryland Legal Aid).

“The result of this extraordinary loss in MLSC’s major revenue source is significant funding cuts for Maryland’s legal services providers for FY 2010,” said MLSC executive director Susan Erlichman. “In January, MLSC informed its grantees that all but core operating grants will be eliminated, and funding for core operating grants will be reduced by at least 25 percent beginning July 1, 2009.”

The proposed cut comes on the heels of a projected 70-percent decrease in revenue from the Interest on Lawyer Trust Account program (MLSC’s primary source of funding), due to unprecedented low interest rates. IOLTA revenues generated $6.7 million in 2008 and is projected to barely reach $2 million next year.

“The elimination of $500,000 from the MLSC fund will further erode our ability to fund legal aid programs, and leave thousands of additional Marylanders seeking critically needed assistance with nowhere to turn for help,” Erlichman said.

“Legal aid programs are seeing an ever-increasing number of Marylanders seeking help with foreclosure, eviction, food stamps, unemployment insurance, family matters, and other issues that have been exacerbated as a result of the current economic crisis,” she added. “Restoration of the $500,000 to the MLSC fund is urgently needed.”

Through staff and volunteer lawyers, legal services programs help over 100,000 clients each year with urgent legal problems.  “This additional revenue cut would devastate these programs and create scores of Marylanders who would lose jobs, family supports and income because they cannot afford counsel,” said Sharon Goldsmith, executive director of the Pro Bono Resource Center, an MLSC grantee. ” Too many people of limited means already go without any legal guidance with credit, housing, employment, foreclosure, bankruptcy, trusts and estates, special education, domestic violence and other issues.  A funding cut would seriously exacerbate these problems and create greater social discord and community instability.”

Erlichman urges the public to contact members of the Senate Budget & Taxation Committee (410-841-3690 Annapolis/Baltimore or 301-858-3690 Washington, D.C.): Chair Ulysses Currie, Vice Chair Edward J. Kasemeyer, and members David R. Brinkley, Nathaniel J. McFadden, James E. DeGrange, Sr., Donald F. Munson, George C. Edwards, Douglas J. J. Peters, Verna L. Jones, James N. Robey, Nancy J. King, J. Lowell Stoltzfus, Rona E. Kramer, Bobby A. Zirkin, and Richard S. Madaleno, Jr.

Legal Aid helps victim of “patient dumping”

Maryland Legal Aid staff attorney Anne Haffner

Maryland Legal Aid staff attorney Anne Haffner

Long Term Care Assistance Project staff attorney Anne Haffner successfully helped a Carroll County woman who was the victim of “patient dumping” after her nursing home discharged her to a hospital and then wouldn’t take her back. “The nursing home claimed that the resident was such a danger to other residents that she wasn’t entitled to a notice of involuntary discharge or a hearing,” said Haffner, noting that the client has mental health and physical issues, uses a wheelchair and is in a lot of pain. “Not taking her back was a violation of both state and federal nursing home law.”

Haffner was then able to get the Office of Health Care Quality to take another look at the woman’s case, which then levied a fine against the nursing home for multiple violations. Haffner then prepared an injunction to force the nursing home to take her back. But then the nursing home agreed to settle and the client returned to the nursing home just in time to be able to get a living-at-home waiver, which allowed her to then move into a smaller, more home-like facility. “She’s a difficult person with an anxiety disorder,” Haffner said. “She’s much happier being in an assisted living facility. We’re really happy with the outcome.”

Washington Post calls for end of restrictions

A Washington Post editorial on Saturday called the work done by legal aid organizations “essential,” congratulated Congress for boosting the funding for the Legal Services Corp. and called for the lifting of federal restrictions on grantees such as Maryland Legal Aid.

“Lawmakers should … unshackle Legal Services from congressionally imposed restrictions that have kept it from working more efficiently and broadly,” the editorial urged. “For example, unlike most others who represent plaintiffs, Legal Services lawyers who prevail in a civil case are prohibited from seeking legal fees from an opponent. This makes no sense, especially because any recovery of fees could supplement the group’s funding.

“Legal Services is also barred from using public or private funds to engage in a range of activities, including all class-action lawsuits, any representation of immigrants who are in the country illegally and all litigation involving abortion-related matters,” the editorial continued. “While some limits on the use of taxpayer dollars may be appropriate, none should limit what local legal-aid clinics can do with money they raise privately.”

To read the editorial, click here.

LSC receives $40 million increase for FY 2009

LSC board chairman Frank Strictland (left), LSC president Helaine M. Barnett, Legal Aid Executive Director Wilhelm Joseph

LSC board chairman Frank Strictland (left), LSC president Helaine M. Barnett, Legal Aid Executive Director Wilhelm Joseph

The Legal Services Corporation will receive a $40 million increase in funding for fiscal 2009 as part of an omnibus appropriations bill signed into law by President Barack Obama on March 11.

Under the new appropriation, LSC will operate on a budget of $390 million. Of that total, $365.8 million will be made available to 137 LSC-funded legal aid programs across the nation, including Maryland Legal Aid.

“The additional funding is critical to every one of our programs,” LSC President Helaine M. Barnett said in a press release. “Low-income individuals and families are increasingly at risk during this economic downturn and our programs are overwhelmed with requests for help.”

The Senate approved the fiscal 2009 omnibus bill on March 10 and the House approved the funding measure on Feb. 25. Appropriations Committees in the House and Senate had recommended the $40 million increase for LSC’s budget.

“We greatly appreciate the hard work of the Senate, and thank Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, members of Congress and their staffs, for making this funding increase possible,” Barnett said.

Who gets a lawyer?

Former vice president Walter F. Mondale

Former vice president Walter F. Mondale

On the 46th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright (the 1963 Supreme Court decision guaranteeing counsel to indigent people facing criminal charges), former vice-president Walter Mondale writes in today’s Washington Post about the failure of states around the country to appoint lawyers to poor defendants  in criminal cases–and the need to expand the right into civil matters.

“A number of lawyers groups, led by the American Bar Association, have endorsed an expansion of the right to counsel recognized by Gideon to noncriminal matters where important legal rights, such as loss of housing, are at stake,” Mondale wrote in today’s op ed.

“Many European countries provide such representation to indigent civil litigants,” he continued. “The backtracking that we are experiencing in the area of criminal representation undermines these efforts to move forward in the civil area. Our justice system depends on the idea that everyone is to be treated fairly, but a lack of resources is affecting the progress the Gideon decision brought to our criminal justice system and is blocking progressive efforts to extend the right to counsel in certain civil cases.” To read the op-ed, click here.