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Bar’s reply opposes fee hike for legal aid

Senior Editor Regular News

Bar’s reply opposes fee hike for legal aid

Senior Editor

& #x201c;I am a new lawyer and the flat rate increase will truly be a disproportionate burden on young lawyers with smaller salaries.”
Jonathan Baker, Sarasota

“While the goal of providing legal aid to the poor is certainly laudable, let us not forget that the current economic malaise has not left our profession untouched.” — David Lazarovic, Miami

& #x201c;Such funding should be voluntary, and tax deductible as a charitable gift.” — Angela M. Malloy , Boca Raton

& #x201c;Charity is voluntary, or should be. The [petitioners] should not be tying it to our ability to practice law, particularly now, when the ability to practice law doesn’t seem to be worth very much on the open market, judging by all the unemployed and underemployed lawyers out there.” — Diane Cassaro , Jacksonville

Those were among the 25 comments — all against — received by The Florida Bar and included in the Bar’s response filed with the Florida Supreme Court August 13, in opposition to a pending member initiated petition that seeks to raise Bar fees for legal aid.

The petition, filed with the court June 16, seeks to amend Bar Rule 1-7.3(a) to allow the Board of Governors to raise the Bar’s annual membership fee — now at $265 — up to $100, with the additional funds going to The Florida Bar Foundation for distribution to legal aid agencies. At a press conference the day the petition was filed, former Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero, representing more than 500 Florida lawyers who filed the petition, referred to the Oath of Admission to The Florida Bar that, in part, provides: “I will never reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the defenseless or oppressed.”

“Now is the time to fulfill that promise,” Cantero said in a video statement. “By raising The Florida Bar dues by only $8.33 a month, the cost of a lunch, we can invest in families, invest in children, invest in veterans, invest in our neighbors, to get access to justice. At the moment, thousands of Floridians go without justice because they cannot afford access to legal services.”

The Bar Board of Governors voted unanimously at its March 28 meeting to oppose the petition to increase membership fees and earmark the funds for legal services to the indigent.

In the Bar’s reply, filed August 13 with the court, it detailed its opposition because the petition:

* “Does not address the more global societal issue of how provision of legal services will be provided to indigent persons;

* “Requires only lawyers to pay for a societal issue;

* “Does not address improvements in the delivery system of legal aid services in the areas of access, delivery, and funding that are needed to meet the needs of low-income Floridians and middle-income Floridians who cannot afford legal services;

* “Does not take into account the donations of time and money already being made by Bar members (in 2012-13: 1.7 million hours and $4.8 million);

* “Requires all active members to make a non-voluntary contribution to The Florida Bar Foundation’s Legal Aid program;

* “Does not provide exemptions for judges or government attorneys;

* “Necessitates that the Bar request another rule amendment in the future when additional funds are needed for its own operating expenses; and

* “Adds additional administrative expense to the Bar for the collections and transmittal of the funds for a third party (which would increase even more if an opt-out option is included).”

Additionally, the Bar noted in its response, the Board of Governors approved, at its July 25 meeting, a $6 million bridge loan to the Foundation, based on terms agreed to by the Foundation.

Cantero’s reaction to the Bar’s response was: “I don’t think it really provides an explanation of why we don’t need this or why it’s not necessary, and a lot of the objections it makes can be addressed once The Florida Bar has the authority to raise dues.”

Even if the court adopts the rule, Cantero said, it still would be up to the Board of Governors to approve any fee increase, which could be flexible depending upon members’ experience or income level.

“It seems to me what the Bar should be saying, if it really is concerned about legal services for the poor, is: ‘Give us the authority, and then let’s have the debate.’”

A comment filed August 8 with the Supreme Court urged support for the petition.

“I write in support of the proposal to increase dues, because the vagaries of the IOTA [Interest on Trust Accounts] program threaten our system of civil legal aid, and because regular funding based on dues is both fair and sensible,” wrote Patrick Crotty of Hallandale.

“Those without the means to hire attorneys are unquestionably disadvantaged in our courts.

“Civil legal aid is one of the only palliatives we offer for what would otherwise be an unabashedly two-tiered justice system, and that is worth safeguarding,” Crotty wrote.

“Furthermore, Florida’s lawyers have a responsibility to ensure the financial health of legal aid because we benefit financially from its existence.

“Every attorney who has received a client through a referral from a legal aid office, or who has defended a case, which would not have been brought but for the initiative of a legal aid attorney, owes a debt to our system of civil legal aid.

“With the precipitous decline in funding from the IOTA program, the time has come to repay that debt.”

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