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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Don't cut legal aid for the poor

Everyone should have competent legal advice when they need help securing veterans benefits, seeking lost wages, fighting eviction from an apartment or coping with domestic abuse.

President Donald Trump's budget-slashing proposals to defund Planned Parenthood and PBS have received plenty of attention. Flying dangerously under the radar is the president's push to eliminate federal money for the Legal Services Corp., which distributes millions in Florida and elsewhere to local organizations that help provide lawyers for the poor. Access to the civil courts cannot be a luxury available only to those who can afford to hire a lawyer, and everyone should have competent legal advice when they need help securing veterans benefits, seeking lost wages, fighting eviction from an apartment or coping with domestic abuse.

Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and leaders of the Florida Bar are traveling to Washington this week to ask members of the state's congressional delegation to help save funding for Legal Services. It is the largest source of funding for civil legal assistance, with a budget of $385 million that does not come close to meeting the need to help local legal services organizations provide lawyers and coordinate pro bono efforts. Yet when demand is rising and funding should be increased, Trump wants to eliminate the entire operation and leave everyone who cannot afford to hire a lawyer to fend for themselves.

In Florida, that would mean the loss of more than $21 million that the Legal Services Corp. distributed to seven legal aid organizations in 2015. Bay Area Legal Services, which serves Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas, Manatee and Sarasota counties, would lose more than $3.3 million. Last year, Bay Area helped 928 domestic violence survivors obtain injunctions, child custody, support and alimony. It helped more than 3,200 people obtain or keep housing, and it helped more than 3,900 people with family law matters such as adoption, guardianship and divorce. Those numbers each have names and faces, and they deserve an equal opportunity to have real access to the civil courts with a lawyer by their side.

Labarga and the Florida Bar have plenty of other facts that make clear that what happens to Legal Services in Washington directly affects Tampa Bay. Statistics from the Florida Bar Foundation show more than 2,100 people were helped last year by organizations funded by the Legal Services Corp. in each of the districts represented by Reps. Dan Webster, R-Clermont; Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor; and Kathy Castor, D-Tampa. Another 1,269 people were helped in the Pinellas district represented by Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg. The foundation also estimates how many fewer military veterans, domestic abuse survivors and seniors would be left without legal help if the Legal Services Corp. disappeared.

All legal aid for the poor does not flow directly from the federal money tied to the Legal Services Corp. Lawyers in Florida are not required to do pro bono work, but they are required to report to the Florida Bar how many hours they give free legal advice or how much money they contribute to such efforts. Florida Bar president Bill Schifino of Tampa has made promoting pro bono work a priority, and Florida attorneys donated about $5.4 million in legal aid last year and about 1.7 million hours of free legal service. In the 6th Judicial Circuit that covers Pinellas and Pasco counties, more than 53 percent of the lawyers provided pro bono services in the last fiscal year. In the 13th Judicial Circuit that covers Hillsborough County, about 44 percent of the lawyers provided free legal services. That's a commendable effort, but it remains far short of meeting the need.

Washington's assault on the Legal Services Corp. comes as Florida's key source for money for civil legal aid has been declining. The fund has not generated significant new revenue since the recession because of near-zero interest rates, and it relies on that interest on lawyers' trust accounts to help fund legal services. The Florida Bar Foundation says that program generated roughly $43 million a year for five years before the recession. But that revenue has plunged to about $5.5 million a year, and grants to legal aid organizations have been cut by nearly 90 percent. There clearly is a need, yet the state has not provided any public money for civil legal aid since Gov. Rick Scott took office and consistently vetoed it.

Effective access to the civil courts to deal with life's serious challenges requires a competent lawyer, and those who cannot afford to hire a lawyer should not be shut out. Preserving funding for the Legal Services Corp. should be a priority — and so should securing a more stable source of funding at the state level to help thousands of poor Floridians get through the courthouse door.