Unjust Cuts

Shrinking legal-aid budgets leave poor people in the cold

On Jan. 4, attorneys with Southern Arizona Legal Aid boxed files, packed briefcases and vacated their offices in an old tile-roofed building on a busy Nogales thoroughfare. Their clients—many of the area's poorest citizens—were advised to find their way 60 miles north to Tucson for legal assistance.

Closing the Santa Cruz County branch after 25 years was a bitter if unavoidable move, implying a lot about austere times and our society's commitment to equal justice.

"We wanted to make sure the message got out that this was a financial decision," says executive director Anthony Young. "It was the result of dwindling resources."

Legal Aid is primarily bankrolled by the federal Legal Services Corporation, an independent nonprofit created by Congress in 1974, and attacked by some Republicans ever since. The agency promotes civil legal assistance for the poor through grants distributed to 136 programs nationwide, including three in Arizona. It's a mission that rankles conservative lawmakers, who consider the program a stalking horse for liberal causes.

But Democrats also have a role in its current funding freeze, even as House Republicans are working to have the corporation's budget dialed back to 2008 levels. Thus, the roughly $2 million annually awarded to Southern Arizona Legal Aid remains fixed, even as the need for services grows.

Yet another hit came from recent reductions in the statewide Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts, or IOLTA. Funds for the legal-assistance project are drawn from the interest on trust accounts that lawyers create for their clients, and shrinking sums reveal the extent to which the legal industry itself is in a serious slump. Fewer cases mean fewer accounts—a drop only compounded by currently low interest rates.

For Southern Arizona Legal Aid, that's meant an annual funding decrease from $250,000 two years ago to just $38,000 now.

If organizations such as Southern Arizona Legal Aid fail, says Young, "folks are on their own navigating the legal system. This is happening even as the filings of civil cases for things such as evictions and foreclosures have gone up 20 percent."

To meet this growing need, many attorneys are also cutting their own rates by up to 20 percent. Among them is Tucson criminal defense attorney Richard Lougee. "A lot of (clients) don't have the resources they had three or four years ago," he says. "I've adjusted my fees downward so these people can afford me. For some of them, I'll take less money in the course of their representation than they originally agreed to pay."

Sometimes, Lougee and other attorneys even take clients for free. He calls it an ethical responsibility. "The prosecution of cases has not dropped with the people's ability to pay."

While the State Bar of Arizona does require its 16,500 members to contribute a certain amount of pro bono time each year, that mandate works on the honor system. "There's no hammer on the other end," says spokesman Rick DeBruhl. "Yes, you're required to do it, but no matter what you report, we don't chase you down and say you didn't do enough hours."

Still, he says most lawyers try to comply with their professional obligations. And while he's seen a recent decrease in the number of pro bono hours logged, he calls it a cyclical downturn that's not clearly linked to an economy in which even many law firms are struggling.

Regardless, this decline only adds to a justice system already riddled with gaps. "In good times, it's difficult enough to provide low-cost or free representation for people who can't afford it," DeBruhl says. "In difficult times, it's even tougher."

Others view the decrease in pro bono work—and the State Bar's lax enforcement—as part of a larger trend. "Ever since the late 1980s or early 1990s, we've begun to see—for a number of reasons—the private bar pull back on its commitment to require lawyers to fulfill their pro bono obligations," says Margo Cowan, a Pima County public defender who handles immigration cases.

But that trend—and the resulting impacts on poor people—isn't confined to pro bono hours. "We've also seen legislation that restricts what legal-aid societies can do representing farm laborers and representing undocumented people," she says. "I think the only people legal aid can represent today are victims of domestic violence or victims of crime. What that means is that low-income people don't really have any alternatives for legal representation. Reduced IOLTA funding is just one more straw in the haystack of putting legal representation out of reach for poor people."

These are no doubt tough times for IOLTA. Administered by the Arizona Foundation for Legal Services and Education, the 27-year-old fund annually bankrolls free legal services for more than 30,000 families. But the program has seen its coffers shrink from a high of $2.5 million to about $1 million today.

"This is the lowest amount of funding that we've had in the history of having IOLTA in Arizona," says Kevin Ruegg, the foundation's executive director. "We've had to dip into our reserves each year, to give out the money we do give out."

But Arizona is doing better than some other states, which have seen 95 percent drops in IOLTA funds, she says. Nonetheless, any decrease makes it that much harder to provide assistance. "It's heartbreaking at our level, because we're here to promote equal access to justice."

In the meantime, attorneys such as Rick Lougee and others are helping to fill that void; according to Anthony Young, volunteer time by lawyers allowed Southern Arizona Legal Aid to assist more than 9,000 people last year. And the Pima County Bar Association, which works closely with Legal Aid, conducts a lawyer-referral service offering $35, half-hour consultations. Another county bar program, called the Qualified Income Legal Team, or QUILT, provides reduced-rate services, too.

"We do the best that we can," says Dr. Susan Trentham, the association's executive director. "We see our referral program as an opportunity for the public to connect with attorneys."

But are such opportunities enough to address a growing gap in access to equal justice? Many, like public defender Cowan, contend that they aren't—especially for working-class folks who see the legal system as daunting and mysterious.

"If what you do is build walls for a living," she says, "you may not feel comfortable going down to Justice Court and filing to get your $200 that somebody owes you."