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Legal help shrinking for those in poverty

The following article, written by Jona Ison, appeared September 22, 2014 on The Newark Advocate website. Read below or view the contents on networkadvocate.com. ABLE Executive Director Joseph Tafelski and LAWO Executive Director Kevin Mulder were quoted in the article.

David Clay was just beginning his adult life when he was named in a lawsuit along with his former employer and co-workers.He thought the problem, which surrounded a sexual harassment claim, had been cleared up when he was 16.

"(My former employer's) lawyer wouldn't represent me. I was only 18 at the time and didn't have a lot of money. ... At that moment, I felt sunk, like I was at the mercy of a high-powered lawyer," Clay said.

Clay looked into the plaintiff's attorney and discovered he recently had won a case where there was a large payout. Someone mentioned legal aid and Clay, who was living in Columbus at the time, qualified for free representation.

The attorney was able to get Clay's case separated and eventually dropped. Clay, now 31, moved to Chillicothe in 2010 and said he thinks his life would be much different without the help he received."I'm just thankful someone around me knew (legal aid) was there," Clay said.

If Clay faced the same situation today, it's possible he would not have gotten the help because of funding cuts.

Over the past five years, the state's two largest legal aid societies have closed offices and cut staff — including attorneys — by half. In contrast, poverty continues to rise across Ohio, increasing from about 13 percent of Ohioans living in poverty in 2008 to 16 percent in 2012, according to the 2014 Ohio Poverty Report.

Aside from people not being served, Southeastern Ohio Legal Services Executive Director Jim Daniels said the cuts also can have a negative effect on the justice system."Our system works when both sides have representation," Daniels said. "If you have one side, even with good people in the system, it's going to be skewed."

Legal aid's purpose

Daniels was going through college in the 1970s when the legal aid movement got a boost after Congress approved funding legal aid via the Legal Services Corporation. He heard attorneys talk about what they were doing, how they were helping people living in dilapidated rental conditions get landlords to make improvements.

"I thought that was so cool," Daniels said.

Although people who are indigent are guaranteed representation in criminal cases, that guarantee does not extend to civil cases. Legal aid aims to address civil issues for people who are poor.

In 1979, Daniels got his first legal aid job in his hometown of Springfield and was primarily working tenants' rights cases. Typically, tenants went in alone to fight an eviction and the judge would rule in favor of the landlord.At first, the judges kept siding with the landlords, but after two years of hearing about poor conditions, such as rodent and pest infestations, Daniels said things started to change. Judges began directing landlords to make good on providing livable housing.

"They were good judges, but they became better judges because they heard the other side," Daniels said.

"We're the checks and balances on the system," said Dave Taylor, the managing attorney at the Chillicothe legal aid office.

Housing, including foreclosures, continues to be a primary case area for legal aid offices; another area of focus is family law, such as domestic violence and child custody. In 2013, cases involving family and housing issues made up 47 percent of the 57,593 cases handled by Ohio legal aid attorneys.

However, cases vary greatly and can include guaranteeing a child gets an education or helping an elderly or disabled person get health benefits.

"We touch a lot of people in a lot of different ways. Lawyers can have a very significant impact on people's lives," said Joseph Tafelski, executive director of Advocates for Basic Legal Equality.

Funding woes

Funding for legal aid primarily comes from two places: the Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation and federal appropriations made through the Legal Services Corporation. Any legal aid office receiving federal funds can receive state funds, but legal aid societies sometimes have two divisions to provide a broader range of services.

State funding began in the 1990s "in response to a watershed study on unmet civil needs," said Jane Taylor, the foundation's director of pro bono and communications. Instead of directing general funds to help, legislators required interest on lawyer and title agent trust accounts be used. A civil filing fee also was added.

Funding amounts are determined for federal and state money based on the poverty level of the service area. The decennial census traditionally was used for the data, but the amounts currently are based on the three-year estimated poverty rate from the 2011 American Community Survey, Taylor said.

Although overall 2013 foundation funding is 1 percent less than is was in 2003 when adjusted for inflation, funding had grown until about 2008. Declining interest rates and civil case filings during the great Recession have nearly halved funding over the last five years.

The foundation reported disbursing nearly $30.8 million in 2008, compared with $16.2 million in 2013 to Ohio's six legal aid societies.

In 2013, federal funding hit an all-time low while the number of people eligible for services grew from 50.8 million nationwide in 2007 before the recession to 65.5 million in 2013, according to the Legal Services Corporation Funding.

Although Congress approved an overall 6 percent increase for Legal Services Corporation in 2014, the $365 million is $14 million less than appropriated in 2008 and $114 million less than 1976 funds when adjusted for inflation.

Tough cutsThe bulk of Ohio is served by Southeastern Ohio Legal Services and Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, which joined with Legal Aid of Western Ohio to maximize funding opportunities. Both reported being at half the staff they were in 2008 and have closed offices in Mansfield, Lancaster, Zanesville, and Marietta.

Between the two societies, there are about 75 attorneys attempting to serve 62 counties. Southeastern Ohio Legal Services covers most of the southeastern part of the state, while Advocates for Basic Legal Equality with Legal Aid of Western Ohio serves northwestern Ohio. The southeastern society also is taking on management of the Marion legal aid office for the Legal Aid Society of Columbus.

"We've never had enough lawyers to address the need," Tafelski said. "National studies show we only meet 20 percent of the need. We're doing a lot more triaging of cases. ... We may only be able to give advice and tell them what they can do themselves."

The societies reported the cut in staffing has resulted in a decrease in the number of people they are helping.

The southeastern society took in 10,667 applications from September 2008 through August 2009, compared with 4,781 from September 2013 through August 2014. The northwestern society saw a similar decline — in 2008, they reported assisting 55,471 individuals and families, compared with 25,870 in 2013.

Legal aid societies often supplement any state or federal funds with help from other nonprofits, such as United Way; apply for special grants; and receive donations from attorneys. In 2013, the northwestern society received $300,000 from other attorneys.

The donation pool is smaller across the southeastern society, Daniels said, because unlike other parts of the state, there are no metropolitan areas or major law firms in the society's service area.As a result, the societies are selecting cases that fit into funding streams. For example, some money they receive is specifically for victims of domestic violence, people who are elderly and veterans.

"If you're a veteran, you are getting help because we have funding (for veterans), which is great, but if you're a parent of a veteran who died in Iraq, we don't have the funding," Daniels said.

Finding alternatives

To maximize help for people in need, the legal aid offices have been seeking alternatives.

At the southeastern society, there is an online tool through which people seeking a divorce can enter their information and end up with a packet of what to file in court. The program works in a similar fashion as TurboTax, Daniels said, and the society hopes to expand it for other kinds of cases that someone could handle on their own if necessary.

Offices are doing case intake online and conduct a lot of business by phone to bridge transportation issues. The societies also conduct legal aid clinics in other service areas to give people a chance to get legal advice.

At the northwestern society, there have been times when the best attorney for a case may be several counties away, so video conferencing has been used. The society also has partnered with a mobile benefit bank to reach people in Lucas and Wood counties.

"I think there's a lot of innovation and changing going on in the legal profession and legal aid is on the forefront of that because they're driven by the need of their clients," said Kevin Mulder, executive director of Legal Aid of Western Ohio.

"People can't live on bread alone. They need justice," Daniels said.

Sometimes, for-profit attorneys will volunteer their time or offer reduced costs to help out. According to a June foundation report to the Ohio Supreme Court, 3,351 Ohio attorneys voluntarily reported doing a combined 100,964 hours of pro bono work valued at $13.6 million.

Although Taylor said the foundation continues to spread awareness of legal aid and its benefits among legislators, there are no bills that look to amend the state funding structure.