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Recession Cutting Legal Aid Services For Poor

JOBS IN JEOPARDY

Dan Haar

October 30, 2008

Stephanie D'Ambrose spoke with the Maryland attorney general's office Wednesday about a case her case that could help countless thousands of apartment tenants fight off eviction by Fannie Mae.

D'Ambrose and another lawyer at Greater Hartford Legal Aid are the first in the nation to fashion an anti-eviction case against the mortgage giant based on wording in the federal bailouts on behalf of a single mother. Calls are coming in from all over.

It's heady stuff for a 31-year-old who took a big pay cut to join Legal Aid last winter.

And in the same week, the reality hit that D'Ambrose might lose her job.

Legal Aid offices around the state, which open 25,000 cases a year for clients with little or no money, are facing a 2009 cut of at least one-third of their budgets. In the downturn, the state-sanctioned fund that finances their work is running dry.

No one yet knows how many lawyers and support staff will get pink slips, or how much pay they will have to give up. They're adding up the ugly numbers now: Statewide, the regular grant from the funding agency will plummet from $16 million this year to perhaps $8 million in 2009.

The Legal Aid offices have other sources of money, but not enough. That is a grim prospect for lawyers such as D'Ambrose, second-least-senior among 30 at Greater Hartford Legal Aid.

But what the lawyers talked about Wednesday was their clients, like the deaf man with a traumatic brain injury whom D'Ambrose helped to receive state services. Now he's living independently.

"You see really tangible results in their lives," she said. "You're not just pushing paper."

Tangible results in a bursting list of cases of domestic abuse, nonpayment of wages, housing disputes, public assistance and more any one of which could be a Page 1 story in this newspaper. Now, suddenly, we can add legal aid for the poor to the list of services threatened by the recession, services that will look to the broke state legislature for more help.

The system has worked well for years. Money held by law firms for clients, often related to real estate closings, earns interest in banks. The proceeds go into the Interest On Lawyers' Trust Accounts program, which is run by the nonprofit Connecticut Bar Foundation.

In 2007, the program earned $20 million in interest and granted $13 million to various legal aid agencies. This year, earnings will plunge to $8 million, as the law firms' accounts shrink and banks pay less because interest rates are dropping.

For 2009, they're looking at $4 million in earnings and the foundation's cushion to make up the difference is almost gone.

At the same time, according to a study about to be released, "We are showing a dramatic increase in unmet legal needs, people who are poor, who never get to see a lawyer," said Sandra Klebanoff, executive director of the foundation. The cut, she said, "is a disaster."

So on Wednesday, Steve Eppler-Epstein, executive director of the largest agency, Connecticut Legal Services, shared the harsh news with his staff around the state lawyers who in some cases don't earn enough to buy a house, who spend their lives devoted to a cause.

"People are stunned," Eppler-Epstein said. "It's upsetting."

But in a way, uplifting as these lawyers fight to put their indigent clients first.

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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