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Increased funding is sought for Legal Aid

Barbara L. Jones//March 19, 2001

Increased funding is sought for Legal Aid

Barbara L. Jones//March 19, 2001

The Legal Services Coalition (“Legal Aid”), which has not received a budget increase from the Legislature since 1998, is asking for an added $2 million in annual funding.

The proposed increase would bring state funding of Legal Aid up from about $6.4 million per year to $8.4 million per year.

The request for additional Legal Aid funding is part of the $86 million in new appropriations contained in the judiciary’s proposed budget. It is unclear whether Legal Aid would get any increase under the budget Gov. Jesse Ventura has proposed for the court system — which contains $50 million less in new funding than the judiciary has requested. Ventura’s budget does not earmark any money for an increase to Legal Aid funding.

The lion’s share of the increase sought by Legal Aid (approximately $1.5 million of the $2 million requested) would be used to fund about 25 new staff positions for lawyers statewide. With the new positions, Legal Aid would be able to represent about 5,000 more indigent clients per year.

The rest of the increase ($470,318) would be used to raise the pay of existing Legal Aid staff members. Legal Aid attorneys start at $27,653 per year, observed Bruce Beneke, executive director of Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services. (Beneke also noted that the average salary for all Legal Aid attorneys is less than the $43,800 starting salary for attorneys working in the Ramsey County Attorneys Office.)

“We’re way behind all other publicly funded lawyers [in pay],” Beneke noted. “We’re not much above judicial law clerks.” (Judicial clerks in Minnesota currently make $26,700. The judiciary is now seeking to raise the clerks’ pay by about $7,000.)

A number of representatives of the bench and bar testified in favor of Legal Aid’s requested budget at a March 13 hearing on the subject before the House Committee on Judiciary Finance.

Kent Gernander, president of the Minnesota State Bar Association, summed up the feelings of many who testified that day as follows: While Legal Aid is grateful for all the appropriations that it has received, the Legislature has not funded it at the level needed.

Funding history

Legal Aid initially got its state funding from filing fee surcharges and other dedicated funding sources. Beginning in the early ‘90s, Legal Aid began getting its state funding from the state’s general fund.

In 1995, federal funds provided by the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) were cut by nearly 35 percent. At that time, the Minnesota Legislature requested that a bipartisan committee address how to overcome the impact of the loss of federal funds and meet the unmet need for legal services in poor communities. The Joint Legal Services Access and Funding Committee recommended steps for the court system, the private bar, legal services programs and the Legislature.

In response, Legal Aid created a statewide computer network using a Bush Foundation grant, raised $1 million a year from foundations and corporations and, last year alone, received more than $5 million in donated services from the private bar. Courts have worked to make the legal system more accessible to pro se litigants.

The committee also recommended increasing the state’s contribution to the Legal Aid budget over the five-year period beginning in 1995 so the budget would be at $8.4 million at the end of fiscal year 2000.

Beneke said the Legislature responded for the first three years with modest increases. The high water mark was in 1998 when the state appropriation reached $6.8 million — but that included some one-time funding. There were no increases in 1999 or 2000.

If the recommendations of the committee had been followed, Legal Aid would be working with a base budget this year of $8.4 million instead of $6.4 million, Beneke observed.

Past support

Beneke said that Minnesota has generally been very good to Legal Aid. Legislative support for Legal Aid has been bipartisan, and Minnesota was one of the first states in the country to provide Legal Aid with state funding, he observed. Minnesota has received national recognition for the partnership between Legal Aid, the Legislature, the courts and community, he added.

Not including the requested increase, the total Legal Aid budget for 2001 is about $22 million, with the state providing about $6.4 million.

“We’ve never asked the Legislature to do it all,” noted Beneke. “It has always been a partnership [between the state and other funding sources].”

Steven Witort, senior counsel and pro bono coordinator at 3M, was one of the lawyers testifying on behalf of Legal Aid at the March 13 committee hearing. He told the committee that the Legal Aid budget is balanced on the backs of its attorneys — many of whom make less than his secretary does.

Hennepin County Chief Judge Kevin Burke testified that Legal Aid’s financial needs are an important reason that lawmakers should support the judiciary’s proposed budget.

“The Legislature has to fund the justice system,” Burke said. “I’m convinced the whole system is underfunded. I am unwilling to say Legal Aid should get money and others shouldn’t, but Legal Aid should be funded. The public has not come to grips with the fact that the justice system is not in good shape.”

Gernander told the house committee that “Legal Aid is an integral and important part of the system. It protects the most vulnerable and least powerful people. It deals with critical needs such as shelter, food, healthcare, and public services. In Minnesota, over 640,000 people or 14.5 percent of the population, are too poor to pay for legal services.”

In a letter to lawmakers, Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page noted that Legal Aid turns away more than 20,000 people. Furthermore, it is estimated that 58,000 people who need legal services and would qualify for them do not apply because they believe no services will be available, Page’s letter said.

“This unmet need has a disparate impact on Minnesota’s communities of color,” Page’s letter continued. “At the time of [the Minnesota Supreme Court Task Force on Racial Bias in the Judicial System’s final report in May 1993] while people of color were roughly 6 percent of Minnesota’s population they constituted 23 percent of the people represented by Legal Aid programs. Those numbers have not improved over the years. Today, people of color make up almost 30 percent of Legal Aid program clients.”

The social benefits of Legal Aid extend beyond a more fair justice system, Beneke said. According to Beneke, Legal Aid:

• helps families break the cycle of abuse and instability generated by domestic violence;

• assists low-income farm families to remain on their homestead or make the adjustment away from farming;

• stabilizes families in crisis by preventing homelessness and helping to repair substandard housing; and

• assists adults to move from welfare to work by overcoming legal obstacles.

Value added

There are many levels on which Legal Aid benefits the entire court system, Beneke said.

“I think if the Legislature recognized this they would make us a priority,” he noted.

First of
all, Legal Aid offices only take meritorious cases, Beneke stated. For example, Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services (SMRLS) wins 85 percent of its contested cases, he said.

Secondly, Legal Aid keeps cases out of the court system because it mediates and negotiates the majority of its cases, according to Beneke. And, when people are in court, a case proceeds much more smoothly if the client is represented by Legal Aid instead of proceeding pro se, he added.

“I think judges would be the first to say their courtrooms work more efficiently [with a Legal Aid attorney representing someone who would otherwise be pro se],” said Beneke. “We can do in 15 minutes what a pro se litigant could do in 45.”

Ramsey County Chief Judge Lawrence Cohen agreed with Beneke, telling the House committee that Legal Aid helps judges and prevents “countless needless lawsuits.”

Seventh Judicial District Judge Kathleen Weir told Minnesota Lawyer that Legal Aid lawyers not only help the courts be more efficient but also at the same time protect due process.

Beneke pointed out that Legal Aid produces some revenue for the state’s coffers. Legal Aid secures about $4 million per year in new child support orders — primarily on behalf of families on public assistance — which reduces the welfare costs to taxpayers, Beneke said. In addition, Legal Aid helps indigent individuals procure about $5 million in federal disability benefits, easing the costs to state and local government funds, he observed.

The Legal Aid funding proposal will be the subject of further legislative hearings in upcoming weeks.

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