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One minute can make a difference

By Catherine Blakemore

Catherine Blakemore

When Pablo Carranza turned 21, he received an unwelcome present. The state reduced the hours of critical home-based nursing care he could receive simply because he became an adult. Pablo has muscular dystrophy and cannot breathe or swallow on his own. Because of his disability, the state has provided him one-to-one care since he was 14, which includes monitoring his ventilator and feeding tube and clearing fluid from his lungs and tracheotomy tube. Though he can only move his eyes, tongue and left thumb, Pablo is a fighter who graduated from high school and has now begun community college. Pablo refuses to let his disability limit him, and says, “To live…in an institution would be no different from spending the rest of my life in prison.” But fighting to avoid institutionalization is not something he can do alone.

Pablo Carranza
Pablo Carranza

Seniors, veterans, foster youth and Californians with disabilities fall through cracks in the social safety net each day. Luckily, legal aid lawyers are there to catch them. Each day, legal aid attorneys help families keep their homes, ensure access to healthcare for people with disabilities, and help domestic violence survivors navigate the court system and provide a safe home for their children. But for every person who receives assistance from a legal aid lawyer, four more are left to fight alone because there are not enough resources to help them.

For many years, the State Bar of California’s Legal Services Trust Fund Program (LSTFP) has been a bulwark in ensuring that people like Pablo have access to the legal assistance they need by providing grants to legal aid organizations throughout California. Unfortunately, LSTFP funding is now at unprecedented risk due to plummeting interest rates. Since 2000, the fund has distributed, on average, about $11 million per year in IOLTA (Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts) grants for the provision of free civil legal assistance to indigent Californians. At its peak in 2008, IOLTA revenue contributed $22.8 million to legal aid, but in 2013, California’s IOLTA revenue was less than $5 million, slashing the amount available for distribution to legal services. That is less than 70 cents for each person who qualifies for free legal assistance. In addition, the same financial crisis that caused the precipitous drop in IOLTA revenue since 2008 also created unprecedented need for legal services. California’s poverty population has grown by almost 700,000 people since 2000, while IOLTA revenue has dropped more than 75 percent from its peak.

To help bridge the gap in funding, last year the Justice Gap Fund raised more than $900,000, but that is less than 5 percent of the funds needed to restore IOLTA funding to 2008 levels. Similarly, fewer than 5 percent of California’s lawyers contribute to the fund, even though the State Bar makes it easy for them to contribute directly through their annual fee statement. Donations to the Justice Gap fund make a significant impact on the ability of nonprofit legal aid organizations to provide access to justice, and help to ensure that the hundreds of thousands of clients like Pablo will have access to a legal aid lawyer when they have nowhere else to turn.

Luckily, legal aid attorneys at Disability Rights California were able to help Pablo — and thousands more Californians facing a similar fate — fight for and win the care needed to live a full life. As a result, Pablo continues to receive nursing care at home at less cost to the state than if he were institutionalized. But not everyone who needs legal assistance is that lucky. In less than a minute, you can contribute online through the Campaign for Justice website and help people like Pablo fight to secure what they need to be healthy, safe and happy.

Catherine Blakemore is the executive director of Disability Rights California and a member of the California Commission on Access to Justice.