Money woes: Poor face loss of legal-aid services
Hundreds of legal-aid organizations nationwide face losing a significant amount of their operating money, which comes in part from interest on money that lawyers hold in trust for their clients.
The Associated Press
The day before Maria Nunes fled Florida for Seattle, her abusive husband beat her unconscious.
But divorcing an American made the Jamaica native vulnerable to deportation because she depended on her marriage for legal residency in the United States.
At a women's shelter in Seattle, Nunes was told she could become a permanent resident but that the law required women in her plight to prove they had been abused.
That's where attorney Jorge Baron and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) — an organization that provides legal aid to immigrants in Washington state at no or reduced cost — came in. The project's lawyers guided her through a seven-year legal fight to get a green card.
But the project is one of hundreds of legal-aid organizations nationwide that face losing a significant amount of their operating money, which comes in part from interest on money that lawyers hold in trust for their clients. All 50 states have some form of a law that earmarks such money for legal services for the poor.
Nationally, it added up to about $370 million last year. Advocates say that figure could drop by as much as 50 percent in 2009, a victim of both the economic meltdown and low interest rates.
"We've never had this type of decline," said Susan Erlichman, president of the national association of IOLTA programs — Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts.
In Washington state, revenue for grants is expected to drop from $9 million in 2008 to $6 million next year.
Legal-aid firms also face decreases in government and private grants. In Seattle, King County further cut a grant for the NWIRP that paid for its domestic-violence program.
Erlichman said some legal-aid firms already have begun cutting workers, and case files are piling up.
Meanwhile, advocates say, the demand for free legal services increases in economic downturns, when people need help with foreclosures or landlord disputes.
The NWIRP, Baron said, has a waiting list of 82 people for its domestic-violence program.
The project has an uphill battle this year: Funding from the state's IOLTA will drop by about 17 percent in 2009, or about 10 percent of their total revenue, Baron said.
"If our funding is reduced, then again we're going to have a situation where we're going to have even less resources to handle cases," said Baron, who serves as the executive director for the staff of 40.
After years in legal limbo, Nunes got her green card late last year. She is now going back to school and hopes to get a technical degree so she can better provide for her two small boys.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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