$5 million appropriated for Civil Legal Assistance Act

first_img $5 million appropriated for Civil Legal Assistance Act Mark D. Killian Managing EditorThe legislature has provided funding to take the Civil Legal Assistance Act statewide.House and Senate budget proposals — expected to be approved as this News went to press — contain $5 million each to expand the program that provides legal assistance funding for family law, assistance to victims of domestic violence, elder and child abuse, entitlement to public benefits, including veterans’ benefits and immigration, for economically disadvantaged Floridians.The act has been operational for the past three years in seven circuits designated as pilot projects.Foundation President Terry Russell said the benefits legal assistance brings to needy families in overcoming barriers to increased stability and independence have been proven over the last three years and now will be available to low-income families everywhere in Florida.“I give every lawyer in this state credit for doing what they have done as pro bono advocates, because without our ability to demonstrate to the legislature that we were doing our share, we would not have convinced them to have the state do its share,” Russell said. He added that it took a strong grass roots effort as well as support from key legislators, including Reps. Dudley Goodlette, R-Naples, Joe Negron, R-Stuart, Don Davis, R-Jacksonville Beach, and Sens. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, and Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey, to get it done.Now, Russell said, the challenge is going to be to maintain the funding.Goodlette said increasing the appropriation for the act — which promotes family stability by often helping families solve problems before they grow to the point where court intervention is required — was one of his priorities this session.“The success that the Foundation has experienced with the pilot program, in my judgment, speaks for itself, and this increase in funding is a tribute to the really excellent work that has been done and to the program’s many significant accomplishments,” Goodlette said.In the most recent reporting year, Civil Legal Assistance Act funds saved the homes of elderly Florida residents victimized by predatory lending practices, secured child support collection orders, gained independence for domestic violence victims, and assisted the disabled to obtain federal benefits needed to survive, according to the Foundation. The money cannot be used to sue the state or any of its subsidiaries, and most of the legal services provided are outside the courtroom. According to the Foundation, 83 percent of legal assistance for low-income Floridians funded by the act was in the form of counsel and advice, brief service, referral to other agencies, and negotiation.Rep. Don Davis, R-Jacksonville Beach, called the act “a wonderful program supported by members of The Florida Bar” to provide legal advice and assistance through legal aid organizations.“The citizens served by legal aid normally have no other alternative when they need legal advice or assistance, as they cannot afford a private attorney,” Davis said. “A very good friend of mine, [Bar President-elect designate] Hank Coxe of Jacksonville encouraged me to support this $5 million appropriation, and the leadership of the House was also in support.”The funding will be allocated as provided in the law based on the poverty population of each Florida county. Last year, the pilot projects provided legal assistance to roughly 4,700 clients in resolving their problems. In addition, legal aid grantees educated nearly 9,000 people about their legal rights and responsibilities through printed materials, seminars, and mailings.“It is exciting that House Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron and I could make this historic investment in providing legal assistance to most at-risk families in Florida,” Sen. Fasano said. “With this new funding, we can now move from providing help in just a few pilot project areas to implementing a statewide program to help so many more families.”Fasano said the money may now be used to serve up to as many as 10,000 families, which almost one in five have someone 65 years old or older who needs help.“increasing our funding to almost $5 million, it may now be possible to educate over 40,000 Floridians about their legal rights,” Fasano said. “We are thrilled that now thousands more Floridians will receive legal help.”With statewide resources, Fasano said, the program also should have a “dramatic impact” toward reducing court backlogs and will be of great benefit to many of Florida’s senior citizens.Jane Curran, the Foundation’s executive director, also said a great deal of the civil legal assistance funded by the state brings in federal funds to Florida in the form of Social Security Disability, Supplemental Security Income, and veterans’ benefits.The Civil Legal Assistance Act was first enacted 2002. Goodlette was the chief House sponsor of the act and was joined by Sen. Burt Saunders, R-Naples, in the Senate. The legislature appropriated $2 million in the 2002-03 state budget, marking the first time Florida has provided funding for civil legal assistance, the 40th state to do so. The state funds were awarded as pilot projects and have only been available to serve low-income Floridians in seven of Florida’s 20 judicial circuits. In 2003 and 2004 funding for the pilot projects was cut to $1.5 million and $1 million respectively. The funds go to the Florida Department of Community Affairs. DCA contracts with The Florida Bar Foundation, which awards subcontracts on a competitive basis to local legal aid organizations. The Foundation also evaluates how effectively the legal aid programs use the state funds and to be sure that the funds are only used for purposes approved by the state. $5 million appropriated for Civil Legal Assistance Act May 15, 2005 Managing Editor Regular Newslast_img read more