Monthly Archives: March 2011

Justice in Jeopardy

American Bar Association President Stephen Zack blogs in The Hill about pending cuts to the Legal Services Corp.:

The words “equal justice under law” are so fundamental to our culture they’re carved in stone above the entrance to the United States Supreme Court.  But today, the opportunity to access justice in our courts is becoming as much a luxury as a Louis Vuitton bag.

Funding of the justice system is an uneven patchwork that leads to unequal delivery of justice and is highly vulnerable during hard economic times. Legal aid to the poor, already anemic, is threatened with huge new federal cuts. And the justice gap is trickling up to the middle class and small business.

The problems outlined at the first national hearing of the ABA Task Force on the Preservation of the Justice System sounded like a report from a third world country. The state court funding crisis stretches coast to coast. There are courts begging for pens because their office supply budget is so low. Other courts are demanding that filers bring their own paper.

Some are moving so slowly on basic, important matters like child custody, that the child becomes an adult before the case is resolved. The problem affects every region, every size state, and it doesn’t matter if the state is red or blue. Most state courts are funded at less than two percent of the entire state budget. Less than two percent for what the founders insisted be a third, co-equal branch of government.

This is appalling. And access to justice will worsen if Congress slashes its funding of Legal Services Corporation, the go-to provider of civil legal help for poor and working class Americans. Right now, proposals are on the table to cut legal aid for the rest of this year by $70 million. These are people dealing with issues like eviction, domestic violence, and unpaid child support.

Legal aid providers tell us that many of their clients are people they’ve never seen before–the new poor, the newly struggling due to long-term unemployment. Legal aid lawyers stand between these people and total financial and legal disaster. We need Congress to act now and make it clear that legal aid is simply off limits in this economy.

To read the entire article, click here.

Legal Aid featured on Midday with Dan Rodricks

Maryland Legal Aid Chief Counsel Shawn Boehringer was a guest on today’s Midday talk radio show, hosted by Baltimore Sun columnist Dan Rodricks on WYPR-FM. The topic was proposed funding cuts to the Legal Services Corporation now pending in Congress.

“We’re seeing triple the number of unemployment cases in most of our offices,” said Boehringer when asked if the number of clients coming to Legal Aid is up. “The proposed cut to LSC would reduce our funding by $774,000, which would pay the salaries of 12 attorneys. And the cut would come at a time when we’ve lost local funding–Baltimore City was $250,000 a year and it’s proposing cutting to zero. And we’ve lost significant amounts in Anne Arundel and Harford counties.”

How to make it on a public interest lawyer’s salary

 

Supervising attorney Janine Scott

Maryland Legal Aid supervising attorney Janine Scott is headlining a Baltimore City Bar Association event next week: “How to Make It on a Government/Public Interest Attorney’s  Salary,” 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 30, at the Clarence Mitchell Courthouse in Baltimore.

 

Scott, author of Legal Aid Wealth: Surviving and Thriving on the Salary of a Public Interest Attorney, will discuss practical ways to manage a modest salary and still achieve your financial goals. She will be joined by Gerard Harrison of the Franklin Financial Group. The event is free to members and $40 for nonmembers. For more information, call 410/539-5936 or email info@baltimorebar.org.

Amid other budget cuts, Pennsylvania governor maintains previous year’s civil legal aid funding

From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “While Gov. Tom Corbett has proposed cutting Pennsylvania’s budget by 3 percent in order to close a $4.16 billion deficit, he has not proposed a big cut for legal services for the poor. But his budget proposed $47.2 million less in funding than the courts requested. . . .The court system is expecting to face some funding drop-offs next fiscal year because federal funds are slated to fall from $2.14 million this fiscal year to $1.42 million next year. In a budget where other state agencies and programs are facing deep cuts, Mr. Corbett’s proposals for legal services for the poor look relatively robust. He proposes to keep $5.05 million in legal services, funded through a Social Services Block Grant (SSBG) that involves federal funds targeted to urban or rural areas in economic distress, at the same level. He also proposes that funding for the Department of Public Welfare to contract with the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network (PLAN) to provide low-income people legal assistance be held at $3.01 million, down from $3.04 million in this fiscal year.

“‘In welfare, my budget retains the core services to care for our needy,’ Mr. Corbett said in his budget address. ‘At the same time, it puts the brakes on a runaway train of spending. My administration is committed to caring for the eligible poor. This budget reflects that commitment.’ Alfred J. Azen, the executive director of the state IOLTA (Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts) Board, which provides funding to legal services, said holding the state general funding for PLAN and the SSBG funding flat ‘demonstrates that he values the civil legal services for the poor.’ . . .

“Other funding shortfalls are appearing on the horizon for legal services. A temporary filing fee surcharge — which consists of $10.25 per filing to fund judicial operations, $1 per filing to fund civil legal services and $2.25 per filing to support district attorney salaries — is slated to expire Jan. 7, 2012, and also could affect funding for legal services, Mr. Azen said. Because the surcharge is supposed to sunset midway through the 2011-2012 fiscal year, only about $1.3 million would be generated for legal services, he said. Legal services in Pennsylvania may be affected because there are calls to roll back federal funding for legal services to 2008 levels.”

Human rights symposium to celebrate Maryland Legal Aid’s centennial

Maryland Legal Aid will present an in-depth presentation and panel discussions on human rights advocacy and its application locally, nationally and internationally at an April 28 symposium hosted in partnership with the University of Baltimore and University of Maryland law schools.

Panelists and speakers include experts in the fields of human rights and legal services, including Wade Henderson, Florence Roisman, Steve Sachs, Edgar Cahn, and Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell. While open to the public, this free event is targeted to attorneys, law students, law professors, legal and human services providers, and college and high school students. The symposium will conclude with a cocktail reception.

Click here for additional details and registration. Advance registration is required.

NY Times editorial: Legislature should approve legal aid increases

Listen to Judge Lippman
March 13, 2011

Acknowledging New York’s deep fiscal crisis, Judge Jonathan Lippman, the state’s chief judge, has reluctantly agreed to make cuts in his $2.7 billion budget request, including a reduction in the number of people working for the court system. But he is refusing to back down on his call for a $25 million increase, to $40 million, in support for civil legal service programs that help low-income New Yorkers faced with foreclosures, evictions, domestic violence and other serious legal problems.

His commitment comes at a time when Republicans in Washington are determined to slash the federal contributions to these essential programs.

Judge Lippman knows what he is up against politically but is undaunted. In a recent talk at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in Manhattan, he described the shocking need for help out there — and the cost to justice and the judicial system if it continues to go unmet.

He told of state courtrooms that are “standing room only, filled with frightened, unrepresented litigants — many of them newly indigent — who are fighting to keep a roof over their heads, fighting to keep their children, fighting to keep their sources of income and health care.” And he cited the astonishing fact that in New York City 99 percent of tenants in eviction cases and 99 percent of borrowers in consumer credit cases have no lawyers.

“What is at stake,” he said, “is nothing less than the legitimacy of our justice system,” adding that the rule of law “loses its meaning when the protection of our laws is available only to those who can afford it.”

Judge Lippman offered a final practical reason for increasing spending on civil legal services: preventing unwarranted evictions, avoiding foster care placements, helping clients get access to federal benefits and easing court delays will carry real economic benefits for the state. He is right on all counts. The Legislature should approve the increase.

Maryland Legal Aid adopts a human rights framework

The January-February issue of Clearinghouse Review features an article by Maryland Legal Aid assistant director of advocacy for income security Peter Sabonis, “Using a human rights framework at the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau.”

“We did it because our client communities pushed us to align our advocacy with their broader needs, not simply their legal problems,” Sabonis wrote. “A comprehensive 2008 statewide assessment of our client population in all twenty-four Maryland counties showed that our clients’ priority needs were affordable housing; jobs that pay living wages; affordable and comprehensive health care; and strong, safe communities.”

“Beginning with the premise that clients, because of their own humanity, are entitled to civil and economic rights, we hoped to trigger both systemic and individual advocacy that was characteristic our our early history: aggressive, creative, client-centered, and movement-oriented,” he added.