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Florida's legal aid services for the poor imperiled by budget cuts

Florida's legal aid societies, where the poor seek help fighting eviction, collecting government benefits and battling foreclosure, are in crisis, according to advocates who say the state's last line of civil legal defense is crumbling.

Years of funding cuts from local governments, the state and the Florida Bar Foundation have diminished legal aid groups to the point where some may soon be forced to close their doors. Others are laying off staffers, furloughing lawyers and eliminating entire segments of their practice. Since 2010, Florida has lost 100 legal aid lawyers, and grim financial forecasts suggest it is poised to lose 100 more of the 386 who remain.

If nothing is done to prevent this, advocates say the state will have one legal aid attorney for every 10,700 Floridians living in poverty.

"It took a lot of years to build a cadre of very experienced and knowledgeable poverty lawyers," said Kent Spuhler, executive director of Florida Legal Services, which advocates on behalf of the state's 30-some legal aid groups.

"We're now losing the basic infrastructure of legal aid in Florida," he said.

The trouble began several years ago, when the Federal Reserve reduced interest rates to near zero as a recession-fighting measure. The move crippled a little-known program, administered by the Florida Bar Foundation, that takes interest earned on short-term deposits made by lawyers in, for example, real estate transactions, and funnels the money to legal aid groups. Many of them relied heavily on this funding.

When interest rates plummeted, the foundation began drawing on its reserves, but by 2016 those reserves will be gone. Whereas the foundation was once reaping about $70 million annually, its earnings fell to $5.5 million in 2013.

Florida's legal aid societies are not alone in their suffering — low interest rates have wounded scores of these groups across the country — but in some states, governments have increased public funding.

Florida is one of only three states in the country that does not provide state money for legal aid groups. Other densely populated states, such as Texas and New York, have allocated $40 million and $75 million, respectively, according to Spuhler.

Every year since 2002, the Florida Legislature has approved a few million dollars in aid for these organizations. And every year since he took office, Gov. Rick Scott has vetoed it.

The funding reductions have been felt differently across the state. Bay Area Legal Services, a nonprofit housed in a beautifully restored Ybor City cigar factory, has lost nine lawyers and roughly $1 million. But the organization, which has offices in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties, is better positioned to weather the cuts than most, as it receives federal grant money.

That is not the case in Jacksonville, where the legal aid group sent out a memo last month warning of the "drastic measures" coming as a result of a loss of city funding. The group is furloughing employees one day a week, cutting salaries by 20 percent, and threatening layoffs.

In Collier and Broward counties, which share a legal aid service, 20 lawyers have been laid off and the organization has disbanded its housing unit, except for foreclosure and pro-bono cases. This last decision has been difficult to explain to residents, said Carol O'Callaghan, the managing attorney in the Collier office. For decades, helping poor people navigate Section 8 housing and fight evictions has been a core mission of many legal aid groups.

"It's kind of incomprehensible to some people because it's such a basic need," she said.

Across the state, the number of cases legal aid groups handle has fallen by several thousand. Meanwhile, the need for legal aid services is growing as the recession's aftershocks continue, delivering more foreclosure, unemployment and food stamp cases. In 2013, the Collier and Broward group fielded more than 30,000 phone calls from people seeking assistance, an increase from 17,000 in 2007.

Legal help for the poor is not constitutionally required in civil matters, as it is in criminal proceedings, but many view it as the only practical response to the principle of "equal justice under the law."

Rather than hope the governor will have a change of heart, nearly 500 Florida lawyers signed a petition this year asking the state Supreme Court to raise the Florida Bar's membership fee cap by as much as $100, generating $10 million a year to fund legal aid groups. The Bar, led by Palm Beach attorney Gregory Coleman, opposes the plan. Its board of governors has not raised dues in more than 10 years. At $265, it has one of the lowest membership fees in the country, and the board prefers it that way.

"We have to stop looking to lawyers to solve this problem. It's a societal problem," Coleman said, adding that lawyers, who must join the Bar to practice in Florida, should not be required to support a particular charity. He is organizing a commission composed of business executives, state legislators and Attorney General Pam Bondi to study the issue. Coleman expects it to begin meeting this fall.

"It's an exercise in futility," he said of the petition. Even if the court approves raising the fee cap, the Bar's board has no legal obligation to increase dues.

Lawyers who support the fee increase say they are sympathetic to their colleagues' objections. With law schools churning out more lawyers than there are jobs, and pro-bono hours falling as lawyers work harder to earn a living, asking for more money is unpleasant. But they point to the oath they took when they were sworn in and promised never to reject "the cause of the defenseless or oppressed."

"I do understand there are a lot of solo practitioners and people who are struggling," O'Callaghan said. "But I see people who can't feed themselves and are being denied access to the courts."

Contact Anna M. Phillips at aphillips@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3354. Follow @annamphillips.

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