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Trump Cuts Legal Aid Funding from Budget

President Donald Trump has proposed a budget that would cut funding for programs that help poor, rural Americans, including access to free lawyers in civil cases, The Washington Post's Steven Mufson and Tracy Jan report. All funding would be slashed for the Legal Services Corporation, which funds legal aid agencies like the one that employs me. Funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps many of my clients get through the winter, would be cut. The plan would also cut funding for Meals on Wheels, which is one of the programs paid for by HUD's Community Development Block Grant program. The bottom line: "If you’re a poor person in America, President Trump’s budget proposal is not for you," The Post reports.

New Virtual Law Advice Clinic Aims to Help Low-Income Residents

Submitted by Amaris Elliott-Engel on Fri, 10/21/2016 - 17:48

Here is my piece just published by the Connecticut Law Tribune about a new pro bono program aiming to help close the access to justice gap:

The power of the internet is being harnessed to make it easier for low-income Connecticut residents to access legal advice, and to make it easier for pro bono attorneys to volunteer to help people who can't afford to pay for attorneys.

Statewide Legal Services of Connecticut is one of the legal aid law firms in eight states which are partnering with the American Bar Association on a virtual law advice clinic that allows low-income clients to ask questions about civil law and for attorneys to answer their questions online whenever convenient for them.

Instead of dropping into a legal aid clinic to talk to a lawyer in person, clients can type their questions and submit them on a computer.

Judge Elliot N. Solomon, deputy chief court administrator and co-chairman of the Connecticut judiciary's Access to Justice Commission, said this new program is unique because it makes it more convenient for people with low to moderate incomes to access legal advice and more convenient for lawyers to be able to provide pro bono service to people who need it.

"It's a win-win both from the perspective of the client and the lawyer," Solomon said.

For clients, the program enables them to access legal advice if they can't afford to take time off from work or if they have some kind of disability that makes travel more difficult, Solomon said.

Clients can get quick responses to their questions with this program, Solomon said. For people who are overwhelmed because they are facing an eviction or debt collection, "sometimes the easiest course of action is to ignore it, which is the least effective" way, he said.

For lawyers, this program makes it easier to do pro bono work whenever they have free time, whether it's at "airport terminals, their offices or late at night," Ashleigh Backman, SLS' pro bono attorney manager, said.

"We saw this as a great way for busy associates, busy solo practitioners, to be able to do pro bono work and accept legal questions they feel most competent answering," Backman said.

Starting six years ago, Tennessee was the first state to run the virtual pro bono clinic. Connecticut and six other states launched their own a few weeks ago. The program will be in 75 percent of the country by November.

Connecticut's version of the program,, is still in beta testing, Backman said. The client feedback so far is "that it was really easy to get an answer for free," she said.

People can ask questions about such civil legal issues aslandlord-tenant problems, consumer debt, employment, workers' compensation, family law, wills, and health law, Backman said.

The program also could be used to send out mass legal information if there is a disaster in Connecticut, Backman said.

There are between 30 and 35 attorneys actively volunteering in the program, Backman said, and SLS would like to recruit more attorneys to participate.

Backman explained that the program is not a live chat but a "virtual space to ask questions."

Clients have to meet requirements for income eligibility, Backman said. Clients also have to sign a retainer agreeing that their attorney-client relationship will end after their questions are answered, she said.

As the site administrator, SLS is providing some quality control by making sure the volunteer attorneys do not have any disciplinary issues with their law licenses and provide legally accurate answers, Backman said.

Attorneys can ask further questions of clients through the computer program, Backman said.

"The attorney is in the driver seat," she said.

SLS will steer complex questions that would benefit from more in-depth legal services to its own staff, she said.

SLS hired Jonathan Caez as the site administrator. Caez sends out clients' questions to attorneys and encourages attorneys to respond to questions in the queue, Backman said. Cindy Fernandez, a paralegal as well as SLS' executive assistant, also will be supporting the project.

Providing a legal answer is going to empower clients and give them hope that there is someone on the other end who cares, Backman said.

The judiciary is going to assist the program by marketing it to potential pro bono volunteers and to potential clients, especially through the court's outreach program in the state's libraries, Solomon said.

The program also has been launched in Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, Oklahoma, Virginia and Wyoming.

Software developers at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz built the Free Legal Answers website.                     

Chatbot Helps People Facing Homelessness

A British programmer has developed a chatbot to help people find housing after being evicted and to prevent homelessness, The Washington Post's Karen Turner reports. Joshua Browder had already created an online robot for people to challenge their parket tickets in London and New York City.

The DoNotPay bot now allows people to "easily file for government housing without paying a cent." One legal aid attorney, however, told The Post that "tenants often need in-person legal assistance to help them fight eviction from landlords armed with their own lawyers."

CT Legal Aid Funding Crisis Leads to Lobbying Office Closing

Due to a funding crisis, Connecticut's three major legal aid nonprofits have had to close their joint office that lobbied legislators, The Connecticut Law Tribune's Michelle Tuccitto Sullo reports. The closure of the Legal Assistance Resource Center of Connecticut is stemming from a funding shortfall with court filing fees being lower than expected and low interest rates on money held in attorney IOLTA accounts generating reduced interest income.

Big Law Is Failing Legal Aid

The American Lawyer's Susan Beck reports that big law firms are failing legal aid nonprofits representing people too poor to afford their own lawyers. Even the most generous firms are contributing little more than one-tenth of 1 percent of their gross revenue.

She profiles the need for legal services in Cleveland, noting that "a lack of adequate public funds and private donations means that, as in Cleveland, more than half of those who seek help are turned away." Overall, there's just one legal aid lawyer for every 8,893 low-income Americans who qualify for legal aid.

Meanwhile, profits are healthy at Am Law 200 once again. Revenue passed the $100 billion mark for the first time in 2014.

"In a country with one of the highest concentrations of lawyers in the world, poor people often are forced to navigate the potential loss of their home, their children or their benefits on their own," Beck reports.

Generational Shift Arriving in Public Interest Community

The Legal Intelligencer's Ben Seal reports about how the Philadelphia public interest legal community is going through a sea change in leadership. This also is happening nationally as a generational shift occurs at legal services agencies for low-income clients. Cathy Carr, the retiring leader of Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, attributes the "increase in national turnover to the aging of the baby-boom generation. Many public interest organizations were founded 40 or 50 years ago, she said, and their leaders are reaching the ends of their careers."

NY High Court Rejects Legal Fees for Legal Services Provider

The New York Court of Appeals has ruled that South Brooklyn Legal Services is not entitled to recover attorney fees from the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance under the New York Equal Access to Justice Act when it got a client's monthly shelter allowance restored to a higher amount, the New York Law Journal's Joel Stashenko reports.

The Equal Access to Justice Act "was intended to employ the 'catalyst' theory, under which litigants are to be rewarded with payment of attorney fees if their cases were the catalyst behind change in policy or correction of the complained-about action," Stashenko writes. The appellate court didn't reach the issue of whether the catalyst theory applies to the Equal Access to Justice Act, so one advocate said the theory does apply in the First Department because the Appellate Division, First Department, ruled in favor of the theory.

Free Lawyers in Civil Cases Growing Rarer

The New York Times reports on the "Civil Gideon" movement, which is pushing to guarantee low-income Americans lawyers in civil cases involving basic needs like housing and employment. The problem is "free legal assistance in noncriminal cases is rare and growing rarer. A recent study in Massachusetts found that two-thirds of low-income residents who seek legal help are turned away." Several projects around the country are trying to improve guidelines for triaging clients between those who have to be turned away, those who can benefit from some self-help guidance and those who get their cases taken. And Washington state is experimenting with licensed legal technicians; that's an example of the efforts to find less costly alternatives than using lawyers on cases.

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