By Mark D. Killian
For the fourth year in a row, Gov. Rick Scott has vetoed funding for the Florida Access to Civil Legal Assistance Act.
The $2 million appropriation would have been used by The Florida Bar Foundation to help low-income Floridians with legal needs.
John Patterson, president of The Florida Bar Foundation, said he is “deeply disappointed” the governor chose to veto the appropriation for civil legal assistance.
“We intend to continue to work to ensure that low-income Floridians have access to legal services in matters covered by the Florida Access to Civil Legal Assistance Act, such as family law, juvenile law, federal benefits including veterans’ benefits, and protection from domestic violence as well as elder and child abuse,” Patterson said. “These services stabilize lives, provide independence and self-sufficiency, secure protection from abuse, and give meaning to our pledge of justice for all. They also generate more than $13 of economic impact for every dollar spent by the state, according to a Florida TaxWatch analysis.”
John Tupps, a spokesman for the governor, explained the veto by saying over the last two years, through the Attorney General’s Office, $15 million has been made available for legal aid services across Florida.
The AG distributed $5 million a year ago from the National Mortgage Settlement directly to civil legal aid offices to assist homeowners in danger of foreclosure. The AG received an additional $10 million from the settlement to distribute directly to civil legal aid offices in FY 2013-14.
Last year, the Legislature also appropriated $2 million under the act, but it too was vetoed.
F.S. §68.105 holds that all appropriations made for the purposes of the Florida Access to Civil Legal Assistance Act “shall be used only for legal education or assistance in family law, juvenile law, entitlement to federal benefits, protection from domestic violence, elder abuse, child abuse, or immigration law.”
The statute also requires the Foundation to provide the state data on the number of clients served, the types of cases, the reasons the cases were closed, and the state dollars saved and federal dollars brought into the state because of the legal services provided.
According to Foundation data from FY 2009-10 — when the appropriation was $1 million — the 25 agencies receiving funds through the Civil Legal Assistance program handled 3,848 cases. That included 1,435 family law cases, 1,111 cases seeking access to federal benefits including veterans’ benefits, 191 domestic violence cases, and 33 elder abuse cases. Other cases involved juvenile law, child abuse, and immigration. In addition, the grant paid for educational programs that reached 5,979 people.
The Foundation also received $1 million in civil legal assistance and $1 million in foreclosure assistance from the state in 2010-11.
The statute prohibits the funds to be used in criminal or postconviction relief matters; for lobbying activities; to sue the state, its agencies or political subdivisions, or colleges or universities; for class action lawsuits; to provide legal assistance with respect to noncriminal infractions pursuant to Chapters 316, 318, 320, or 322; to contest regulatory decisions of any municipal, county, or state administrative or legislative body; or to file or assist in the filing of private causes of action under federal or state statutes relating to or arising out of employment or terms or conditions of employment.
The program began as a pilot in a few circuits in the 2002-03 fiscal year with a $2 million appropriation. It expanded statewide a couple years later, when the appropriation was $1 million. Allocations have been as high as $2.6 million.