Now that Congress has passed a set of bills to (hopefully) improve the economy and mitigate the impact of the recession on poor Americans, it’s clear that a full economic rebound will take years. In the mean time, more Americans are struggling to make ends meet and put food on the table, let alone afford legal advice amidst rising foreclosure rates and domestic violence incidents.
For these reasons, writes Emily Savner in The San Francisco Recorder (sub req), the US government must expand funding intended for legal aid as part of its financial recovery package. But with budgets tight across the board this year, the Legal Services Corp. has less cash to distribute among a larger population seeking legal aid. And the state-based Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts, which collects interest from funds that lawyers hold temporarily for their clients to be distributed to people in need of legal aid, dropped 75 percent from $371 million in 2007 to $92 million in 2009.
State by state, IOLTA budgets are dropping so severely that chapters must eliminate important staff positions and local offices to stay afloat. Last year, for example, IOLTA revenue in Wisconsin dropped 92 percent from the year before, and in New Jersey, 2010 IOLTA funds are 92 percent lower than 2008.
California shares these states’ pain when it comes to lack of funding for legal aid. The California IOLTA office says it received only $7 million in 2009, down from $22 million in 2008. And so far this year, the agency has collected only $3.35 million, on track for a decline of seventy percent in only two years. To help the six million Californiains that IOLTA doesn’t reach, the State Bar of California has established the Justice Gap organization, which gives donors an opportunity to give what they can toward legal aid. Hopefully, as Savner suggests, the federal government will also step up to close the gap.
Since each of the partners of GJEL Accident Attorneys started his or her career at a legal aid clinic, we know how important they are, especially during a recession. Visit the Justice Gap website if you would like to provide financial support to a clinic, and check out our interactive map of free legal aid clinics here in the Bay Area.