TALLAHASSEE — While pointing to a "crisis" in funding for legal-aid programs, the state Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a proposal that could have led to attorneys paying higher Florida Bar membership fees to help cover the costs of legal services for the poor.
Justices split 4-3 on a proposal that would have allowed the Bar to increase dues by as much as $100 a year, with the increased money going to legal-aid programs. The Bar opposed the proposal, which was spearheaded by former Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero and backed by more than 500 lawyers.
The court's majority wrote that "there is an urgent need to develop new solutions and sustainable sources of funding for legal aid" but said a more-comprehensive approach is needed than the possible increase in Bar dues. A commission formed by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga began meeting in January to come up with recommendations for addressing the issue.
"Although we agree with petitioners that the members of The Florida Bar should take an active role in supporting legal aid organizations, we conclude that the proposal before us does not present the type of comprehensive solution that is needed to address the crisis in funding for legal aid,'' said the majority opinion, which was supported by Labarga and justices Barbara Pariente, Charles Canady and Ricky Polston.
But justices R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince wrote pointed dissents, with Lewis saying the proposal would have authorized higher Bar dues — but would not have mandated them. The current Bar fees are $265 a year.
"It is truly an unfortunate day for Florida as a majority of this court professes to be protecting the legal needs of many Floridians while it is actually rejecting the very simple availability of a limited tool to provide possible relief and a safety net to at least some most in need,'' Lewis wrote. "I fully agree that the lawyers of this state cannot and should not be required to be the group of individuals solely and exclusively responsible for the monetary needs or programs necessary to provide access to justice for all Florida citizens. The petition we consider today does not seek such a result and was never designed or intended to reach that result."
Quince, who was joined in her dissent by Justice James E.C. Perry, offered a similar argument.
"While I do not believe that lawyers should be solely responsible for providing the monetary assistance to help the poor and the middle class have access to our courts, I do believe that it is a part of our responsibility as lawyers to assist in this endeavor,'' Quince wrote. "I recognize that lawyers have for years contributed so that others have access to our legal system through both the giving of money and the giving of their time and talent. However, in this time of crisis, we would not be remiss in giving The Florida Bar the authority to require lawyers to dig just a little bit deeper to ensure that our courts remain open and accessible to all in need."
Legal-aid groups in recent years have been hit with growing demands for services while seeing reduced funding. One of the sources of funding is The Florida Bar Foundation, which uses interest from lawyers' trust accounts to help pay for the programs. But Thursday's majority opinion said low interest rates have caused revenue to "fall dramatically."
The opinion said the commission formed by Labarga could provide a more "encompassing" approach to address the problems.
"The commission's work will provide studied and comprehensive recommendations to improve access to justice in this state,'' the opinion said. "While petitioners' proposal here warrants consideration, along with other possible solutions to the funding crisis, adopting any one approach to the problem at this stage would be premature."