Saturday, April 29, 2017
ORLANDO SENTINEL Editorial: Don't close courthouse doors on Floridians
It’s an admirable principle. Too bad it’s still more of a goal than a reality in Florida.
Millions of state residents can’t afford to hire a lawyer to help them resolve urgent matters in civil court. These include make-or-break issues for individuals and their families. Obtaining veterans’ benefits. Contesting foreclosures. Recovering from disasters. Settling family disputes. Securing protection from domestic violence.
Some of these Floridians are fortunate enough to get assistance through organizations that provide legal aid. But if a proposal from President Trump to eliminate federal funding for the Legal Services Corp. becomes law, far fewer will get help.
While lawyers could take up some of the slack, as a group in Florida they already donate millions of dollars and millions of hours each year to clients who can’t pay. Another funding source, interest on attorney trust accounts, has plummeted since the Great Recession pushed rates toward zero.
The Legal Services Corp. helps fill the civil justice gap by providing grants to local agencies throughout the country to hire legal aid lawyers or arrange for pro bono assistance from private lawyers. This year, seven regional organizations in Florida together received almost $22 million from the LSC.
This group includes Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida, which provides legal help to low- and moderate-income residents in 12 Central Florida counties, including Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Lake. Last year, this regional organization served 17,500 people, including 6,500 children, 1,675 seniors, 1,300 domestic violence survivors and 800 veterans. While it draws funding from other contributors, including the Florida Bar Foundation, law firms, businesses, local governments and local United Way chapters, the LSC provides a significant share of its budget.
Advocates in Florida for federal legal aid, including Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, went to Washington, D.C., this week to appeal for support from the state’s congressional delegation. They arrived armed with facts about the thousands of Floridians who would lose legal assistance without LSC funding.
Maintaining that funding is a worthy priority for members in both parties. But regardless of what happens on the federal level, state legislators can — and should — help, too.
Florida is one of just three states that doesn’t provide any state funding for legal aid. In recent years, legislators included annual allocations of up to $2 million in state budgets, but Gov. Rick Scott vetoed them.
This was shortsighted, especially for a governor who talks so much about return on investment. When Floridians obtain the benefits they’re owed through the help of legal aid, they bolster their local economies by spending the money at local businesses. When they get help avoiding foreclosures, domestic violence or other personal crises, they’re less likely to need services or monetary benefits from government agencies or nonprofits.
Floridians who get the legal help they need to stabilize their lives are more likely to be assets for their families, employers and communities. No wonder a study commissioned by the Florida Bar Foundation found that every dollar spent on civil legal aid yields $7 in economic benefits.
Now that federal funding is in doubt, the only responsible course for legislators putting the finishing touches on next year’s state budget is to make sure Florida has a back-up plan. There’s more than enough money in next year’s budget — especially after a $1.5 billion windfall from the Trump administration for charity care at hospitals — to make up for the entire federal cut Florida would suffer if LSC funding is not maintained.
Scott has already called on legislators to increase funding for the state’s tourism promotion agency, Visit Florida, to $100 million, and to spend $200 million to fix the dike surrounding Lake Okeechobee. An additional $22 million for legal aid would be modest by comparison, but it would have a life-changing impact for thousands of Floridians. It would strengthen their communities and the state’s economy, too.
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