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State lawmakers briefed on a different kind of fiscal cliff

By Laura Ernde
Staff Writer

When the Assembly Judiciary Committee held a lengthy hearing last month on the crisis facing California families who are seeking access to justice, most of the testimony centered on the impact of recession-caused budget cuts to the courts.

But the final witnesses of the day addressed the panel of lawmakers about a lesser-known fiscal crisis – one facing providers of legal services to the poor.

Since 2008, the number of Californians living in poverty has increased 25 percent, according to the testimony of Catherine Blakemore, executive director of Disability Rights California and a member of the California Commission on Access to Justice.

At the same time, funding for legal services has dropped precipitously, from $20.7 million in 2007 to less than $5 million this year. A major funding source – interest paid on certain lawyer trust accounts – has declined with fallen interest rates. A voluntary campaign to bridge what’s known as the “Justice Gap” raises less than $1 million a year.

Much like the state courts, legal aid organizations have so far found temporary sources of income to make the dollars stretch as far as possible. “The legislature and State Bar have been strong partners in seeking relief for legal services funding,” Blakemore said.

But, like the courts, there are no more one-time fixes on the horizon.

“What we now realize is we’re at the end of the road of those mechanisms,” she said.

A lack of legal aid attorneys could exacerbate court funding woes, she said, since legal aid attorneys are sometimes able to solve problems before they go to court. Blakemore provided the example of two brothers living with disabilities who were renting a home that was facing foreclosure. Disability Rights was able to fend off an eviction without going to court, protecting these disabled clients as well as avoiding costly court procedures.

Even with current levels of funding, thousands of people are forced to navigate the court system on their own, said Tülin D. Açikalin, managing attorney at Bay Area Legal Aid. That’s fine for those who are proficient enough to take advantage of court self-help programs, but there are many others who can’t because they are traumatized, scared, illiterate, mentally ill or unable to understand English.

“There’s an enormous gap between what we can provide and the need,” Açikalin said.

The federal budget cuts that went into effect today, known as sequestration, will result in even further staff and service cuts to civil legal aid providers across the country.

Legal Services Corp. President Jim Sandman told the National Law Journal this week that the agency anticipates a 5 percent across-the-board cut to its annual funding if Congress is unable to resolve the crisis. This  after two years of steep cuts to LSC funding.

The State Bar Board of Trustees will discuss the issue of legal services funding at its March 6 meeting.