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Fund Cuts Curtail Essential Legal Aid Service

Hartford Courant

February 09, 2010

Legal aid lawyers play an essential role in our system of justice, because laws don't enforce themselves. These dedicated, passionate and underpaid lawyers for low-income Connecticut residents take cases involving homelessness, domestic violence and access to basic needs. Without their work, "justice for all" would be a myth. When there are not enough legal aid lawyers, justice is not only denied to the poor, but impaired for everyone because courtrooms are flooded by unrepresented people.

Falling revenue from Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts, state budget cuts and the proposed reallocation of funds originally intended for legal aid have put this critical service at jeopardy. The funding that has been allocated to legal services should be sustained.

Our state's system of justice requires more than a courthouse, a judge and a clerk. It depends on lawyers to learn their clients' legal issues, give them good advice and champion their positions, all while navigating complex procedural rules. For families that are both very poor and facing crisis, Connecticut's legal aid lawyers are their only source of representation. This is why Connecticut's judicial branch, in its 2008 Strategic Plan Implementation, noted the importance of finding ways "to stabilize funding sources for legal aid."

Legal aid funding through Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts, the primary fund source for legal aid, has plummeted from $20.7 million a year to about $4 million a year. The state's last budget included funding to replace some of that lost revenue. Even with this help, legal aid programs have had to lay off staff, reduce salaries and adopt furlough days.

But, now, the judicial branch has proposed diverting $1.5 million of funds that were appropriated for legal aid to the poor to help cover a rescission of $7.8 million in the judicial budget. The governor, General Assembly and judicial branch must find a way to ensure this $1.5 million reaches legal aid. Legal aid staff members have responded to the crisis with heart. Faced with pay cuts and uncertainty, they continue to fight for thousands of domestic violence victims, elderly people pressured by creditors, low-wage workers not being paid, disabled children seeking an education, disabled people seeking state and federal benefits.

A typical case might involve a single father who is a low-wage worker and is raising three children, one of whom lives with disabilities. Much of the man's wages go to pay rent on a modest home. He has always paid his rent on time; despite his payments, however, a bank that foreclosed on his landlord moved to evict him. Without the help of legal aid, the man and his children would have no representation and would lose their home.

There are state and federal laws that protect tenants in good standing who live in houses being foreclosed. But many tenants don't know the rules. Legal aid helps many poor clients learn their rights and accompanies them to court to force banks to comply with laws designed to protect people who pay their rent.

Legal aid assists about 10,000 people every year, helping to ensure our courts provide justice for all people. Without the funding allocated in the state budget, not only will more low-income residents be denied justice, but everyone will suffer as the halls of courthouses fill with people unable to navigate judicial process.

The governor, judicial branch and the legislature need to find a way to ensure that legal aid receives all of the funds the governor and the legislature appropriated to meet this crisis in legal services funding. This funding will ensure that there is truly access to justice for all of Connecticut's residents.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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