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November 15, 2017
Bill would pay court costs for pro bono lawyers for special needs kids

By Jan Pudlow
Senior Editor

More pro bono attorneys will step up to represent dependent children with special needs if they don’t have to reach into their own pockets to pay court costs.

That’s the idea behind the Pro Bono Matters Act of 2018, supported by Alan Abramowitz, executive director of the Florida Statewide Guardian ad Litem Office, and Nikki Fried, representing Florida Children’s First.

On October 24, Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Jacksonville, presented SB 146 to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which passed unanimously. The next day, Rep. Frank White, R-Pensacola, presented the companion bill, HB 57, to the House Civil Justice & Claims Subcommittee, where it also passed unanimously.

The proposed legislation would require the Justice Administrative Commission to provide a pro bono attorney, who agrees to represent dependent children with certain special needs, access to the same funding for expert witnesses, depositions, and other due-process costs of litigation as an appointed registry attorney.

“Working with the good folks at Guardian ad Litem, this is the hurdle, this is the obstacle, this is the bottleneck in getting attorneys to volunteer,” Bean said.

In the long run, Bean said, the state will save money by paying the court costs, because more pro bono attorneys will volunteer.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park, an attorney who is co-sponsoring the bill, said it was almost like a glitch bill.

“In 2014, we took a big step as a legislature in requiring that our court systems provide legal counsel for dependent children who have special needs. I thought that was a huge step forward in improving the quality of representation for the children of the state of Florida as they go through the maze of the judicial system, and their futures are dictated and determined by decisions from the court,” Bradley said.

“I think this really is almost a glitch situation, in the sense that we provided funds to pay for these attorneys, but we also provided a system whereby pro bono attorneys would be first on the list before we got to attorneys who would be paid for their services.

“And I don’t think anybody contemplated that those pro bono attorneys would not only not be paid for their services, but have to come out of pocket for what can be hundreds, even thousands, of dollars,” Bradley said.

“If you don’t practice law or have never been involved in litigation, I assure you court reporting and transcripts, expert witnesses to testify to the child’s mental or physical condition, these can be very expensive, but necessary, to come up with a just outcome in a particular matter.

“So I think we are really discouraging good attorneys from offering their services if we are now telling them: ‘Thanks for all you’ve done, but, by the way, here’s a bill for $3,000.’”

Bradley said it should have been part of the 2014 legislation appointing attorneys to dependent children with special needs.

“This is money that should have been paid all along and is money well spent,” Bradley said.

Fried, co-chair of the Legislative Affairs Committee of The Florida Bar’s Young Lawyers Division, helped write the 2014 bill, calling it “my baby.”

“That’s why we created the program to begin with,” Fried said. “There were not a lot of qualified attorneys to begin with. We started out paying them $3,000 a case, but budget restraints forced us to compromise and bring it down to $1,000 a case.”

That’s why pro bono attorneys are so needed, she said.

“The last thing we want is for an attorney to agree to take a case pro bono and not go through with it because they are losing money on the case,” Fried said.

Bean noted it was fitting the bill was being heard during Pro Bono Week.

“We are going to save money, but more importantly, we will get some quality attorneys, people that love kids and are ready to volunteer.”

[Revised: 12-14-2017]