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As the former access to justice / pro bono guy for Utah, I have a long term view on issues surrounding legal services for the poor. So it is with sadness and a bit of frustration I write this post.
Funding for access to justice generally comes from a handful of sources. The first is federal funding – with some state funding mixed in here and there, the second is from IOLTA (Interest On Lawyers’ Trust Accounts), the third is from foundations and the fourth is from individuals, primarily those in the legal market.
If any one of these sources is compromised, then competition for the other sources greatly increases. One source already greatly reduced has been IOLTA, since interest rates have been pushed very low by the Fed over the past 5 or so years as an economic stimulus tactic. Foundations suffered a bit from low rates and the downturn as well. So legal services for the poor was already in a struggle for survival.
And now the coup de grace – Congress cuts legal services funding by 14%. The WSJ reports that cuts will result in predicted losses of 1,226 people for legal services agencies.
The usual thinking from politicians is that the legal profession bears the responsibility of serving the legal needs of the poor. So the answer is more pro bono hours. Unfortunately, pro bono hours have also suffered at the hands of the downturn.
I suppose if one searches, they can find a logic to the legal services segment suffering with the rest of the legal market. The problem with that thinking is that the ranks of the poor are swelling now. So it’s not a lack of demand driving a reduction in supply.
In the end I am not sure where to take this post. I could appeal to a sense of justice to get people invigorated to take action. But given the dire situation, I am not sure where one would point such enthusiasm.