by Gwynne A. Young
Beaming with pride, I watched my colleague, Sylvia Walbolt, receive the Tobias Simon Pro Bono Service Award in 2008. To thunderous applause at the Florida Supreme Court, Walbolt said: “Justice is the cornerstone of our nation, and it’s the raison d’être of our profession.
“Learned Hand said it best: ‘If we are to keep our democracy, then there must be one commandment: Thou shalt not ration justice.’”
Four years later, as I embark upon my term as president of The Florida Bar, I am compelled to embrace that commandment anew.
We are facing a crisis — there’s no other word for it — in funding legal services for low-income people throughout our country and in our state.
I do not exaggerate when I say we teeter on the brink of a two-tiered justice system: one for the haves and one for the have-nots.
The Florida Bar Foundation, always the guardian angel in providing grants for legal services, is itself in dire straits.
Because falling interest rates have devastated the Interest on Trust Accounts program, the Foundation has suffered an 88 percent drop in income, from $44 million annually in 2007 to only $5.5 million since 2010.
Add in a deep and long recession, and the Foundation’s reserve funds would run out in 2014.
This deficit has already caused layoffs of attorneys and staff positions at Florida legal aid organizations, reaching a projected 120 to 410 positions over the next few years.
Of course, this means fewer legal aid cases can be taken on, and fewer people have access to justice.
Another blow hit in April, when Gov. Rick Scott vetoed for the second year in a row $2 million for the Civil Legal Assistance Act.
I don’t want your eyes to glaze over with a lot of numbers. I want to focus your attention again on what makes America great: the promise of equal justice for all. Here, in the land of the free, justice is not just for the wealthy.
Let me tell you about one case handled by Bay Area Legal Services (BALS):
After taking care of their daughter’s three minor children for many years, Sherry and Matt wanted to adopt their grandchildren. But it wasn’t a simple process. While their daughter and the father of the two oldest children agreed to surrender parental rights, the father of the youngest child was in prison and contested the adoption. The judge granted the adoption of the older children and scheduled a hearing in the contested adoption to allow the father to participate from prison. With the grandparents in her office, BALS attorney Heather Tager called the father before the hearing to request his consent. This time he agreed to sign the adoption papers. Now, all three children have a forever home, and their grandparents are more financially secure because they were eligible for increased Social Security benefits.
I could share example after example of real cases helping real Floridians facing catastrophes in their lives that lawyers are specially trained to make right.
Truly, helping such people in their time of need — regardless of their ability to pay — is the very soul of our legal profession. There was no greater teacher for me than my mentor at Carton Fields, Wm. Reece Smith, both a former Florida Bar and ABA president. I learned from his example, as during his term as ABA president he led the movement to save funding for Legal Services Corporation. In fact, the title to this column comes from his favorite quote, as used by another mentee, Sylvia Walbolt.
I support the Foundation’s previous campaigns:
• “ONE,” “One lawyer. One client. One promise,” launched in 2009, to entice more lawyers to take pro bono cases. If every lawyer would take one pro bono case, we would be well on the way to assuring access to justice for all; and
• “NOW,” this year’s urgent appeal from outgoing Bar President Scott Hawkins and Foundation President Michelle Kane Cummings to Florida lawyers for emergency contributions.
But, we must do even more.
I’ve been thinking about ways we can better support funding for legal aid in Florida, perhaps putting in place a special committee to look at how the Bar can help the Foundation.
We need to take the long view of supporting the Foundation, through endowments for lasting stability not tied to the vagaries of the economy. Interest rates have dropped so low that IOTA is virtually nonexistent. Legal Services Corp. has decreased funding significantly at the federal level.
We need to look at potential private sources and come up with a solid plan.
As a lawyer whose clients are businesses, I want businesses and corporations to understand why it’s crucial to fund legal aid for low-income people. These are not someone else’s problems. They are everyday, working poor employees living paycheck to paycheck, who are unable to pay high legal fees for family law matters that cover everything from child custody and domestic violence, to child abuse and neglect. When they are worried about keeping a roof over their heads, it’s tough to focus on doing their jobs.
And for you business-minded folks, Florida TaxWatch found that every $1 spent on legal aid generated $4.78 in economic impact and created more than than 2,000 jobs outside of legal aid.
I applaud the Bar’s Trial Lawyers and Family Law sections, both alarmed by cuts to Children’s Legal Services Grants, that meant 750 fewer children would have access to special education, medical, developmental, and mental health services. This year, each section stepped up with $75,000 gifts to protect children’s rights. I’m proud that my fellow members of the executive council of the Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Section have individually donated $20,210 to the NOW campaign. Additionally, the section has reimbursed $50,740 to the Foundation. Next year, the section will waive sponsor fees for an in-kind contribution of $15,000, bringing the RPPTL total contribution to $86,180.
But it is not enough to sustain the Foundation’s mission to help provide legal representation in more than 102,000 cases a year, spanning income maintenance for the disabled, housing, individual rights, family matters, and consumer issues.
We are American lawyers. We must keep the promise we made when we took the oath to practice law: the promise of justice for all, regardless of the size of one’s bank account or the fortune of one’s circumstances.