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Legal aid keeps working despite decreased resources

Legal News Reporter

Published: August 30, 2013

The recently released 2012 Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation (OLAF) annual report shows an organization continuing to deliver high levels of services to low income people despite a still-shaky economy and steady decreases in funding.

OLAF recently decreased the amount of money that it projected to provide to legal aid organizations throughout Ohio this year.

For Community Legal Aid (CLAS) the reduction amounted to $173,000 said Sara Strattan, executive director. “But,” she added, “our grant from the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) was up slightly from 2012 since recent census data showed an increased poverty population in the eight counties served by Community Legal Aid.

“Of course,” she said, “Legal Aid has never been funded to meet the civil legal needs of low income people.”

OLAF itself has multiple funding streams, and each Ohio Legal Aid organization receives support from a wide variety of funders. Virtually all have been adversely affected by the sagging economy and many have suffered from federal sequestration.

Total funding for all of Ohio’s legal aid organizations is down about 7 percent from 2012 to 2013, said Jane Taylor, the native Akron attorney who is the director for pro bono and communications for OLAF.

OLAF was founded in 1994. Located in Columbus, it sources out and distributes monies to legal aid organizations throughout the state.

CLAS received $2,274,169 from OLAF in 2012 of a total state disbursement of $15,765,037. That $2.25 million, said Strattan, is down from a figure of about $4.7 million that CLAS received in 2007, right before the recession hit.

Another ding to the income for legal aid organizations recently has been tied into market forces. Numerous banks in the state had to lower their interest rates on savings accounts, including IOLTA and IOTA accounts that also fund legal aid efforts. Fortunately, said Strattan, “some banks have maintained higher interest rates on these accounts specifically to support legal aid.” At least for now.

The sequester itself has held up $85 billion in federal spending, and affects many government-funded programs, including poverty programs across the board. The federal LSC receives and distributes the national Congressional appropriation for legal services to the poor.

LSC’s grant to all legal aid agencies was reduced by sequestration, but for CLAS it the amount of funds received was increased since a larger percentage of the poverty population now lives in central northeast Ohio.

Locally, Strattan said that almost one-third of the people meet income guidelines that would allow them to access legal aid.

“Three-and-a-half percent of all the households in the Akron-Canton-Youngstown area applied for assistance from CLAS in 2012. The organization closed over 7,500 cases in 2012, or about 10 percent of the state’s legal aid cases. Those local cases affected about 33,000 people, said Strattan.

Ohio’s legal aid offices provide as much bang for the buck as they possibly can, given all of their financial limitations. According to H. Ritchey Hollenbaugh, OLAF’s president, every dollar invested in Ohio’s legal aid programs brings a return of 115 percent.

To attract attorneys, OLAF runs a student loan repayment program for attorneys who work for legal aid offices, to a maximum of $6000 per attorney per year. In fiscal year 2012, the foundation disbursed $501,097 in loan repayment assistance to 90 Ohio legal aid attorneys.

“Nobody goes to work at legal aid for the money,” said Taylor. “They are there because they have a passion for public service, and taking care of people who have serious problems (combined with) a limited ability to address those problems themselves. They love the work and they care about these clients.”

One of the most serious problems in the state, both for individuals and for the statewide economy, was the recent real estate collapse.

OLAF began the Ohio Foreclosure Project following the 2007 housing market collapse. In 2012, the project began to be phased out because, Taylor said, the number of foreclosures filed finally crept down to their pre-2007 levels.

Taylor said “legal aid handled most of the foreclosures in Ohio,” since the market crashed in 2007.

OLAF statistics show that, throughout its existence, the project had over 28,000 intakes, opened over 18,000 cases, and closed over 16,000 cases. It also saved nearly 4,000 homes which allowed about 6,000 families to stay in their homes for an additional 60 days or more and averted thousands of default judgments among other positive outcomes of the project. In total, legal aid has saved almost $10 million worth of housing value in the four years from 2008-2012.

Entering law students seem to be getting the message that community work and other pro bono services are a good thing. In a recently-reported survey by the Kaplan test prep company, nearly 70 percent of the 750 respondents to the survey indicated that they would support a rule requiring law students to complete a certain amount of pro bono work before being admitted to the bar.

OLAF and the Ohio State Bar Association do have a joint pro bono program that is tied geographically into each of the state’s 12 appellate districts.

Attorneys who participate in pro bono activities and legal aid attorneys work together to enhance each other’s strengths, said Taylor. “There is a professional obligation to contribute pro bono legal services,” said Taylor, “although, unlike in many states, there are no strict guidelines about what that should look like.”

To Taylor, legal aid attorneys who specialize in the issues of low income existence lend that expertise to cases, and that effort is enhanced by the expertise of the attorneys who volunteer to help in cases in which a legal aid attorney may need help in a specific area. That is a win-win.

Strattan also said that her office is seeking to benefit more people by opening up more community collaborations. This helps with, “identifying needy populations and getting the resources to them,” said Strattan.

It also helps balance the cutbacks in the legal aid workforce.

For example, partnerships with local hospital systems and women’s health clinics provide CLAS with names of victims of domestic violence who may otherwise not have accessed their services. Relationships with other organizations dedicated to immigrants help legal aid identify and serve members of that population.

OLAF also has a veteran’s program, and Strattan said that her organization is developing their abilities to help that population.

Regardless of the financial situation, the need is always there, she said.

“We are one of the top requests from the 211 service. There is a high demand.”