Florida lawyers agree there’s a funding crisis that threatens legal service for the poor. But there’s disagreement among them on how to fix the problem. The Florida Bar opposes a proposal by hundreds of attorneys to raise Bar membership dues to cover the cost.
For people under a certain income level, legal aid can help with issues spanning from scams to juvenile justice. But in Florida, there’s only about one legal aid lawyer for every 20,000 eligible clients, according to state administrators.
One of their clients is Tallahassee’s Sandra Peavy, who says she’s elderly and disabled.
“They saved my home and my sanity, to tell you the truth,” she says.
Peavy says earlier this year, her bank kept calling and telling her to vacate her house because they were foreclosing on it. But she says she never got a written notice, and she couldn’t get the bank to take a check from a friend who’d offered to help. That’s when she went to Legal Services of North Florida, one of the state’s 30 legal aid offices.
“If it wasn’t for them, I would have been out of my house,” she says. “Not only me, what about the other people that don’t work or are sick or elderly and need legal assistance? And they can’t afford it. I mean, they’re going to lose everything they have. I almost lost everything if it weren’t for legal aid. And that is the God-in-Heaven truth.”
But North Florida Legal Services Executive Director Kris Knab says people who depend on legal aid are having an increasingly hard time getting services as funding sources have dried up over the past decade. The most recent blow, she says, was when Gov. Rick Scott vetoed all $2 million the Legislature had given in state funding this year.
“The purpose of that was to help people who were domestic violence victims, elderly citizens and children, people who are disabled who are seeking benefits, federal public benefits,” Knab says. “I mean, it’s hard to see how any of that could be controversial.”
She says four years of vetoes have been compounded by another shrinking money pool that depends on interest rates and real estate transactions, both of which dropped off during the recession.
Florida Legal Services Executive Director Kent Spuhler says that combination has decimated local offices that theoretically must serve all 7 million eligible Floridians.
“We’ve lost probably 100 legal aid lawyers, and we only started out with 486,” he says.
So, Spuhler and hundreds of other attorneys—former Supreme Court justices and Florida Bar presidents among them—have a plan: get the Florida Supreme Court to raise lawyers’ Bar membership dues by $100 for an annual cash influx of $10 million.
“You have a responsibly to the public,” Spuhler says. “You are, quote, ‘the guardians of the rule of law.’ And you don’t have rule of law if there’s huge segments of our population that don’t have any access.”
But the more than 50 lawyers elected to serve on the Florida Bar Board of Governors have unanimously voted to oppose the fee hike. For one reason, Bar President Eugene Pettis says private attorneys already donate millions of hours of pro bono legal help on top of millions of dollars in cash donations to the cause.
Pettis says, “It is not just a legal crisis, it’s a societal crisis, and we do not look to any one sector of our society to resolve its own problems singularly.” He adds, “When there is a food crisis, we don’t go to Publix or Winn-Dixie and say, ‘Hey, Publix, Winn-Dixie, we need you to give away more food. We need you to give more money. We say, ‘Hey, society as a whole, there is a hunger crisis in our communities.’”
He says the Bar believes the legal aid system—not just in Florida but across the nation—is in need of a major efficiency overhaul. On the federal level, he says agencies are working to make benefits information and customer service more accessible. But for people who need legal aid lawyers to navigate pressing issues, he says support must come from a wide variety of sources, including the business sector.
“Most of these issues are issues that affect people’s personal effectiveness in the workplace, for those that are fortunate enough to have jobs. Thus, the business community, the corporate community, needs to be at the table,” he says.
Pettis says he looks forward to continuing the discussion this fall at a planned “access-to-justice summit” to be hosted by future Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga. He says state Attorney General Pam Bondi and Legal Services lawyers have also confirmed they’ll attend.
Meanwhile, he says, the Bar has agreed to loan $6 million to the legal aid funding pot over the next two years.
The petitioners plan to deliver their request for the Bar dues hike to the Florida Supreme Court on Monday. It's expected to take months for them to rule.