As the state's and Jacksonville's poor go without legal representation, The Florida Bar fights a $100 fee to fund legal aid


Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, the local nonprofit that helps the indigent with civil legal cases, has been battered by budget cuts in three ways: Each year since 2011, when he took office, Gov. Rick Scott has vetoed some $2 million for legal aid programs like JALA throughout the state. Locally, the Jacksonville City Council, facing its own budget crunch, has not funded JALA at all in 2013 or 2014, aside from dedicated grants for specific programs like veterans and homeless representation. And those cuts come on top of a rapidly depleting source of money that The Florida Bar Foundation previously used to fund legal aid.

The results have been layoffs, cuts in services and shutting the office some days to save money.

Poor people still need help, though — child custody battles rage on, lenders file foreclosures, the elderly continue to be scammed, unscrupulous landlords screw their tenants. Those problems haven’t evaporated, but organizations that provide legal representation have to balance victims
with budgets.

A group of 522 Florida lawyers has proposed a way to ameliorate that. The Florida Bar is fighting them tooth and nail.

For many years, the Bar Foundation has dedicated interest earned from temporary deposits by attorneys, such as in real estate transactions, to legal aid. However, with interest rates at practically zero since 2008, that revenue source has evaporated. The Foundation generated $44 million for legal aid programs in 2007. In 2012, that figure plummeted to just $5.8 million.

So earlier this year, the group of lawyers, led by Florida Legal Services Inc., proffered a temporary solution: The bar could simply tack on an extra $100 to the existing $265 membership dues for legal aid, which would generate about $10 million a year — not quite the salad days of the mid-aughts, but still something. They petitioned the Supreme Court to determine that the bar can raise the membership fees.

The Florida Bar has resisted, saying its lawyers volunteer and donate to legal services enough on their own.

The court is scheduled to hear oral arguments at 9 a.m. on Dec. 2. (The session will be broadcast live on JALA executive director Jim Kowalski will be arguing in support of the increase.

Locally, Kowalski says, cuts caused JALA to lay off six attorneys and to close its offices every Friday in September and October, saving 20 percent on staff salaries. For the foreseeable future, says Kowalski, the office will be closed every other Friday, which will result in a 10 percent savings.

But JALA’s clients still need lawyers.

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