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State provides $5 million increase to legal aid

By Psyche Pascual
Staff Writer

A State Bar-administered pool of money that finances legal services for low-income people, seniors and people with developmental disabilities got a big boost after Gov. Jerry Brown last month approved an additional $5 million in funding.

The Equal Access Fund’s jump in funding is sizeable for one that has remained at roughly $10 million since its inception in 1999.

“It really is quite a victory,” said Catherine Blakemore, executive director of Disability Rights California, based in Sacramento, which helped about 25,700 people with the Equal Access funds it received last year. “We have a real priority to reaching out to targeted communities with disabilities.”

The Equal Access Fund is one of several the State Bar administers for legal services in California. About 100 legal aid organizations get money from the State Bar to provide legal help to low-income people, seniors and people with developmental disabilities across the state. Among many other things, these organizations work to prevent domestic violence, keep families in their homes, connect veterans to benefits and keep farm workers safe.

“This is a terrific step in the right direction,” said Kelli Evans, senior director administration of justice at the State Bar. “Not only will the funding make a real difference in the lives of thousands of individuals and families who need legal help but it’s a smart investment for California. Studies show that for every $1 spent on legal aid, $6 or more is returned to the state.”

Blakemore said the funding increase will help her organization hire at least three new attorneys who could offer legal services for people with disabilities, including those who don’t speak English or who lack access to specialized types of health care. The increase in funding will also be a boon to California Rural Legal Assistance, which has 18 offices in 24 California counties, Executive Director Jose Padilla said. Last year, CRLA also received Equal Access funds and helped about 44,000 people.

As the poverty rate has grown with the recession, so have the numbers of poor people who need legal help, Padilla said. Many rural pockets of California also have lower-than-average ratios of legal aid attorneys to low-income people compared with more populous regions of the state.

“The money is very, very big for us because we’re in so many rural counties, and there are very few legal service providers that we share that money with,” Padilla said.

Padilla said he hopes to add seven to eight new attorneys in two primary areas: to serve people in communities that speak indigenous languages and in rural areas where the attorney population is so sparse, there is virtually no access to legal services.

In most counties, there is one legal aid attorney for every 10,000 people, Padilla said. He said CRLA will use the money to extend legal services to those areas where access to legal aid attorneys is hard to find, such as Madera County, which only has one attorney for every 39,000 people.

Both Blakemore and Padilla said they would continue working with the State Bar to secure a permanent increase in Equal Access funds. California lags behind at least 20 other states in the average amount it spends per person on legal services, both pointed out.

“California used to be a real leader in this area and now it’s 22nd,” said Blakemore, the executive director for Disability Rights California. “We’ll work with all our partners to have this funding continue.”