Editorials

We need to keep the courts open to all, including the poor

The Florida Constitution declares that courts in the state “shall be open to every person for redress of any injury.”

It’s an admirable principle. Too bad it’s still more of a goal than a reality in Florida.

Millions of state residents can’t afford to hire a lawyer to help them resolve urgent matters in civil court. These include make-or-break issues for individuals and their families. Obtaining veterans’ benefits. Contesting foreclosures. Recovering from disasters. Settling family disputes. Securing protection from domestic violence.

Some of these Floridians are fortunate enough to get assistance through organizations that provide legal aid. But if a proposal from President Trump to eliminate federal funding for the Legal Services Corp. becomes law, far fewer will get help.

While lawyers could take up some of the slack, as a group in Florida they already donate millions of dollars and millions of hours each year to clients who can’t pay. Another funding source, interest on attorney trust accounts, has plummeted since the Great Recession pushed rates toward zero.

The Legal Services Corp. helps fill the civil justice gap by providing grants to local agencies throughout the country to hire legal aid lawyers or arrange for pro bono assistance from private lawyers. This year, seven regional organizations in Florida together received almost $22 million from the LSC.

The Keys are served by Legal Services of Greater Miami, which has an annual budget of around $3.5 million, says Deputy Director Margaret Moores. The past year, 112 cases involving 211 people were worked in Monroe County by attorneys with Legal Services of Greater Miami.

The Keys cases involved land-tenant disputes, foreclosures, evictions and trailer-park issues; family law including child custody and divorces; and access to government benefits such as from the Veterans Administration and Social Security.

In a new initiative funded by the Community Foundation of the Florida Keys, Legal Services will put kiosks in the libraries in Key West, Marathon and Key Largo so Keys residents can apply for help without having to drive to Miami or experience long wait times on phone calls (if you do call, the number is (877) 715-7464, 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday).

Advocates in Florida for federal legal aid, including Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, went to Washington, D.C., last week to appeal for support from the state’s congressional delegation. They arrived armed with facts about the thousands of Floridians who would lose legal assistance without LSC funding.

Maintaining that funding is a worthy priority for members in both parties. But regardless of what happens on the federal level, state legislators can — and should — help, too.

Florida is one of just three states that doesn’t provide any state funding for legal aid. In recent years, legislators included annual allocations of up to $2 million in state budgets, but Gov. Rick Scott vetoed them.

This was shortsighted, especially for a governor who talks so much about return on investment. When Floridians obtain the benefits they’re owed through the help of legal aid, they bolster their local economies by spending the money at local businesses. When they get help avoiding foreclosures, domestic violence or other personal crises, they’re less likely to need services or monetary benefits from government agencies or nonprofits.

Floridians who get the legal help they need to stabilize their lives are more likely to be assets for their families, employers and communities. No wonder a study commissioned by the Florida Bar Foundation found that every dollar spent on civil legal aid yields $7 in economic benefits.

Florida needs to step up when the federal government steps down.

Orlando Sentinel. This was supplemented with material from the Keynoter.

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