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Legal Aid Offices Seek Increase In State Support

LYNN DOAN

February 26, 2009

At a time when funding for virtually every state agency is under siege, Connecticut's legal aid offices are pleading with legislators not only to preserve their state allotment, but also to increase it by $8 million.

The state's nonprofit legal agencies have been struggling with a dramatic drop in their primary source of funds interest from money held in escrow by lawyers, largely from real estate transactions.

Revenue going to those accounts has shrunk by 80 percent, from $20 million in 2007 to $8 million last year to a projected $4 million this year.

The state's three legal aid agencies Connecticut Legal Services, Greater Hartford Legal Aid and the New Haven Legal Assistance Association have been forced to cut salaries and benefits, in some cases by 25 percent or more, to avoid major layoffs.

Hundreds of clients and supporters, many wearing "Equal Access to Justice" stickers, packed a hearing of a key legislative committee Monday night at the state Capitol.

"We are staring in the face of a classic tipping point," said Hartford lawyer Timothy Fisher, vice president of the foundation that administers the money that goes to the legal aid groups.

If the government money does not increase, Fisher said, the state would be allowing the dismantling of "a terrific infrastructure of lawyers and staff." Legal aid agencies receive a total of $1 million in state funding annually.

"There is much more fundamental harm to human beings if we fail at this opportunity," he said. "I fear we will be paying for this years and years into the future."

Supporters are behind a bill that would raise an estimated $9 million for legal aid groups through court fees, an occupational tax on lawyers and a $3 million appropriation from the state's general fund.

"It's been a long time since I've seen this many people in a room in support of attorneys," said one lawyer who came before the committee about an unrelated funding issue.

The governor's administration, which did not include the funding in its budget for the coming year, has no position on the bill, a spokesman said.

Workers from domestic violence safe homes, child abuse centers, homeless shelters and other groups shared stories of people helped by legal aid agencies: a woman stalked by her former boyfriend. A grandmother, her children and her grandchildren threatened with eviction. A 16-year-old, cognitively challenged boy deprived by his school of language therapy.

In December, Fannie Mae reversed a policy of evicting tenants whose landlords lose their homes to foreclosure after Greater Hartford Legal Aid brought the first case in the nation seeking to protect a tenant in such a situation.

Rachael Davis, a services coordinator for a homeless shelter in New Britain, warned the committee that, if state funding is not granted to legal aid services, "more people will become homeless. Our clients will fall deeper into trouble, and justice will not be served."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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