Denver Bar Association
September 2011
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From the President: Legal Aid Once Again on the Chopping Block—How the Bar Can Respond

by Ilene Lin Bloom

 Legal Aid Once Again on the Chopping Block—How the Bar Can Respond

Ilene Bloom, DBA President

L


egal aid is not just a poor person’s issue. "Access to justice is correctly seen as a necessary foundation for a just, vibrant, democratic society," Lonnie Powers writes in "Tied to the Railroad Track Once Again: The Perils of Legal Aid Funding" for The Nonprofit Quarterly. This may not come as a surprise to some of you, but Colorado Legal Services (CLS), our statewide legal aid agency, is experiencing significant funding cuts that are compromising its ability to meet even the most essential legal needs of Colorado’s low-income population. CLS has only half the staff and at least twice as many clients as it did 40 years ago. With the looming funding cuts, all CLS most likely will be able to do is manage intake and turn prospective clients away. We cannot let this happen. As a profession, we have the power to help solve this crisis. 

The Facts

Here are the basic funding facts you need to know:

• Cuts in federal funding in this fiscal year will cost CLS approximately $170,000 from now through December, and much larger federal funding cuts in 2012 are likely.

• A reduction in state funding will cost CLS approximately an additional $165,000 over the next 12 months.

• Another key funding source for legal services comes through interest on lawyers’ trust accounts with the Colorado Lawyer Trust Account Foundation (COLTAF). With interest rates remaining near zero, COLTAF funding continues to be severely compromised. CLS lost $440,000 in COLTAF funding in 2010, and will lose another $200,000 to $250,000 before the end of 2011.

• The need for civil legal aid has outpaced funding for years. Even before this current crisis, CLS was turning away at least as many eligible clients as it served due to a lack of resources.

 

The Effects

As funding continues to be cut, the impact will be devastating.

• More and more eligible Coloradans will go without the services of an attorney and will not have the support they need to assert their rights in desperate situations. This includes women seeking safety from domestic violence for themselves and their children, returning veterans entitled to benefits, and seniors facing foreclosure.

• There exists a real potential for the layoff of staff attorneys, closure of CLS offices, and less access to an attorney for Colorado residents living outside our metropolitan areas.

• The prolonged economic crisis has driven many families into poverty, often for the first time, producing even greater demand for assistance from the already overstretched CLS.

• Ultimately, there will be a reduction in the quality of representation that CLS can offer those Coloradans who cannot afford to pay for a lawyer. 
 

Our Profession Can Take
Ownership of this Looming Issue

Our esteemed profession has responded to this very same issue of funding cuts in the past by creating COLTAF, first initiating and then increasing bar-sponsored pro bono programs, giving generously to the Legal Aid Foundation, and combating efforts in Congress to eliminate all federal funding for civil legal aid—and we can certainly do it again. We can take ownership of this issue—otherwise, we will be GIVING UP on providing civil legal aid.

We now have the chance to reaffirm the institutional role that lawyers and law firms play in supporting the civil justice system and cultivating a sense of responsibility for access to justice among younger and older attorneys alike. As lawyers, we are fortunate to have a certain level of education, wealth, and connections through which we can make things happen. I know that none of us are immune to today’s economic realities, but I ask you to just imagine how much tougher times are for a family that is about to lose a home, for victims of domestic violence, the disabled, children, veterans, and others whose health and safety are at risk every day. If all of us took at least one necessary step to help address the problem, it can and will be solved.

 

The Most Immediate Ways for You to Help

I am aware that there are many problems in our world that appear beyond our ability to assist. This is not one of them if we as a profession step forward. I offer 10 things you can do today that will help solve this problem and improve access to justice for needy individuals and families:

1. Call Metro Volunteer Lawyers (303-830-8210), or any other legal aid program in Denver that you’d like to volunteer for, and take a pro bono case.

2. Make a charitable gift to the Legal Aid Foundation of Colorado at legalaidfoundation.org. Funds raised by the Legal Aid Foundation go to support CLS.

3. Call your banker and ask for an increase in the interest rate paid on your COLTAF account (the interest earned on those accounts goes to support CLS and Colorado’s civil legal aid delivery system).

4. Call members of the Colorado congressional delegation to urge their support for an increase in federal funding for legal aid through the Legal Services Corporation.

5. Call your state senator and representative to urge their support for an increase in state funding for legal aid through the Family Violence Justice Fund.

Legal services can have a preventative effect that actually saves money for the state. For example, housing a family in a homeless shelter for just a few weeks is more expensive than supporting a legal aid lawyer that can help a family remain in stable housing (see "The Budget-Slashing Hysteria’s Latest Victim: Legal Aid for the Poor" in Mother Jones).

6. Amend your written retainer agreement to request client consent to donate any unexpended nominal funds to the Legal Aid Foundation after a reasonable time, in the event the client’s whereabouts are no longer known to you and reasonable efforts to locate the client have been unsuccessful. See CBA Ethics Opinion 95.

7. If you are a trial lawyer negotiating a class action settlement, consider proposing a cy pres provision that directs unclaimed funds to the Legal Aid Foundation.

8. Include the Legal Aid Foundation in your estate plan.

9. Forward this article to your fellow attorneys and citizens and encourage them to take one of these steps, as well.

10. Give to the Legal Aid Foundation again!

The DBA is also looking into ways it might better assist its members by matching them up with all types of pro bono cases—stay tuned for more information on this. Thank you for taking the time to read my first column for The Docket. I think it is important to discuss this issue. Please feel free to respond with your thoughts and feedback to ilenebloom@hotmail.com. D


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