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Add-on fee for legal aid sought

Senior Editor Regular News

One hundred and eighty-two Bar members submitted a petition to The Florida Bar, in preparation for filing it with the Supreme Court, seeking to raise Bar membership fees by up to $100 to help legal aid agencies.

The petition, prepared by former Justice Raoul Cantero, was submitted to the Bar on February 26.

It asks to amend Bar Rule 1-7.3(a) (Membership Fees Requirement) to raise the “annual membership fee cap by $100 to provide greater availability of civil legal services to the poor and to provide greater access to the courts.” It also asks the court to expedite consideration of the petition, once it is filed, by allowing 30 days for comments, 10 days for a response, and then oral arguments scheduled as soon as possible.

Current Bar membership fees are $265 for active members, and tentatively no increase is planned for the 2014-15 fiscal year budget, which will be considered by the Board of Governors at its March 28 meeting. The board also is expected to discuss the petition at that meeting.

With about 98,000 Bar members, the petition, if adopted, could raise almost $10 million for legal aid.

Bar Rule 1-12.1(f) allows 50 Bar members in good standing to petition the court for a rule change “provided that any amendments proposed by members of the Bar shall be filed 90 days after filing them with The Florida Bar.” Subsection (g) in addition requires that the petition be published in the Bar News and on the Bar’s website at least 30 days before filing the petition and that there is a 30-day comment period after filing (see Notice, here ).

The petition argues action on membership fees is necessary because The Florida Bar Foundation’s income from its Interest on Trust Accounts Program has fallen 88 percent, to $5 to $6 million annually, since 2008, as interest rates on bank accounts have collapsed. The Foundation has gone through its reserves and is now making drastic grant cuts to already stretched legal aid programs. Those cuts threaten 120 of the 410 full-time legal aid lawyer positions in Florida.

“The proposed amendment would increase the cap on Florida Bar membership [fees] by $100 and propose that any increase above the current cap authorized by the Board of Governors of The Florida Bar be used to provide legal services to the poor,” the petition said.

Specifically, the petition would amend Rule 1-7.3(a) to raise the fee cap for active members from $265 to $365. It also would add this language: “Any annual membership fees set by the Board of Governors in excess of $265 per annum shall be used as additional funding for the Legal Aid to the Poor Program of The Florida Bar Foundation.”

The petition contends the action is needed because of the harm to legal aid agencies and because the legal needs of the poor are increasing at a time when funding for legal aid is falling. At the same time, lawyers’ pro bono efforts have been stagnant or declining, and efforts by the Foundation to raise money from other sources largely have been unsuccessful.

“The Florida Bar’s members have an obligation to ensure that the poor have access to the courts,” the petition said. “Far from mandating charitable contributions by Florida’s lawyers, this increase would assist them in fulfilling the obligations of their membership in The Florida Bar.”

The petition notes that Illinois, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin all have levies between $25 and $95 on lawyers which go to legal aid and for representation of the poor. The Colorado Supreme Court has transferred money from its attorney registration fund for legal aid; the Minnesota Supreme Court has approved a temporary fee increase for both its Board of Public Defense and Legal Services Advisory Committee; and Alaska has a fee discount for members who provide 400 hours of pro bono services in a year. Hawaii and South Carolina have a legal aid levy on their members’ fees, but lawyers may opt out of paying it.

Bar membership fees were last raised in 2001, and the petition said that if the fees were indexed to inflation, they would have increased by $84 since 2001.

“Allowing a $100 increase in The Florida Bar’s membership fees offers immense benefit to the public with minimal inconvenience to Florida’s lawyers,” the petition concludes. “Lawyers have a professional obligation to assist in improving the administration of justice, and to provide legal services to those unable to pay for such services. The adoption of a $100 fee increase would aid Florida lawyers in meeting that responsibility by providing needed funds for legal services for the poor.”

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