Floridians deserve access to legal representation regardless of their income. The state Constitution guarantees lawyers for criminal defendants who cannot afford a lawyer. But poor civil litigants are on their own. Legal aid societies have long filled the gap, but sharp decreases in funding threaten the groups' ability to serve the indigent. The Legislature should step in and revisit funding for legal aid societies. And the next governor should make sure the allocation makes it into his budget. Anything less shortchanges the poor and denies basic protections to members of society who need it most.
A struggling economy and cuts in local and state government funding have decimated the budgets of legal aid societies around the state. Some are contemplating closure. Others are cutting staff, hours and services. The cutbacks come as demand increases for the type of services legal aid provides, which include representation in civil matters ranging from divorce and immigration issues to senior benefits and landlord/tenant disputes. In a recent Tampa Bay area case, legal aid lawyers defended a veteran who was about to lose his home to foreclosure. The lawyers stopped the sale and helped the veteran into a loan modification program.
The Tampa Bay Times' Anna M. Phillips reported that Florida is one of only three states in the country that does not provide money for legal aid groups. Since 2002, the Legislature has approved a few million dollars for legal aid in its annual budget. Every year since he took office, Gov. Rick Scott has vetoed the appropriation. Florida's legal aid societies also are suffering because contributions from a Florida Bar Foundation program have diminished due to historically low interest rates on short-term deposits. In the past, the foundation donated to legal aid any interest accrued on such deposits made with the foundation by lawyers on behalf of clients.
Some of Florida's legal aid societies are in worse shape than others. Bay Area Legal Services, for example, has lost nine lawyers and about $1 million. But it also gets money from federal grants. Legal aid groups in cities without outside grants are faring far worse, and the indigent will ultimately pay the price. The Legislature should find away to provide funding for the state's approximately 30 legal aid groups and push the next governor to pay more than lip service to programs that help the poor.
Lawyers in Florida are not obligated to do pro bono work. But the state Supreme Court has challenged every lawyer to donate 20 hours per year or give a $350 donation to legal aid groups. In the 2012-13 fiscal year, lawyers donated $4 million, according to Kent Spuhler, executive director of Florida Legal Services. But it is not enough to close the gap. Volunteer hours to legal aid societies are down by 30 percent. More lawyers need to step up and embrace a charge from the One Campaign, a statewide effort to get attorneys to take on at least one pro bono case a year. Only increased volunteerism from Florida's lawyers and a funding commitment from the state will assure the poor that the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of "equal justice under the law" is not beyond their pay grade.