Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Thousands of Good Reasons to Fund Legal Aid

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Thousands of Good Reasons to Fund Legal Aid

Article excerpt

Legal aid is more than a service to Floridians who can't afford a lawyer for defense in civil cases. It is a principled, cost- effective investment in people and families.

The legal aid agencies in Florida have never been flush with cash, but today their financial outlook is dire.

Federal funding has been substantially reduced.

State funding has been modest or nonexistent (Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a $1 million legislative appropriation last year).

Funding from the Florida Bar Foundation has fallen dramatically and is expected to continue declining, due to low returns on the foundation's investment income.

All of this at a time when the need for legal aid is high, with no reason to think it will diminish.

Unemployment rates have dropped but, in Southwest Florida, the rate was a troubling 9.7 percent in January.

The last Census showed that the nationwide poverty rate was 15 percent; throughout the second half of the past decade, Florida closely followed the U.S. rate. One result is that the percentage of Americans who qualify for legal aid -- because their incomes are less than 125 percent of the poverty rate -- has risen to 50 percent from 10 percent.

The collapse of the housing market triggered a flood of foreclosures that recently ebbed but is expected to resume. The volume has been so large that home foreclosures make up about one- half of the caseload of Gulfcoast Legal Services, which has legal aid offices in Bradenton and Sarasota.

During the recession and its long aftermath, the impacts of foreclosures on individuals and families have been devastating -- placing additional burdens on the social safety net and often leading to homelessness.

As attorney John Patterson explains in a letter to the editor, Gulfcoast Legal Services, Legal Aid of Manasota and their sister nonprofit organizations help ensure that legions of Floridians are not denied access to civil courts solely because of a lack of income to hire an attorney.

(The public defender system provides access to legal representation for low-income Floridians accused of committing crimes.)

There is more than legal principle at stake, though. Legal aid organizations can often help Floridians avoid homelessness, recover from crushing debt and defend themselves against fraud and abusive creditors.

Legal aid can help children and spouses escape abuse, and enable families to reconcile custody and child-support disputes.

Legal aid can help individuals and families obtain the financial benefits -- such as disability payments -- to which they are entitled.

Intervention by attorneys and their staff is not always possible or successful. But the services provided give clients opportunities to avoid destitution, danger or long-term crisis -- and offer chances for individuals and families to maintain or retain dignity. …

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