first_imgCivil Legal Assistance Act funded June 15, 2006 Regular News Civil Legal Assistance Act funded Vetoed a year ago, program is once again back in business Jan Pudlow Senior Editor Legal aid groups have cause to celebrate, because Gov. Jeb Bush has approved the largest appropriation from the state ever — $2.5 million — for the Florida Access to Civil Legal Assistance Act.“The governor put $1 million in his own budget for us and that was a significant signal. We felt like that was a very nice gesture on his part,” said Terry Russell, the former Florida Bar president who in 2002 created the first plan to get state government to pitch in to help poor people with civil legal problems, ranging from child support enforcement, to helping battered women enforce injunctions against their abusers, to making sure elders don’t lose their homes to bogus home repair schemes.A positive gesture from Bush was heartening, after last year’s big let down when legislators agreed to fund a statewide program at $5 million, only to have the governor veto the appropriation three weeks later.Russell said the Foundation wanted $3 million to expand the program statewide this year, but he is happy with $2.5 million legislators gave the program. Russell said the issue of statewide expansion is “subject to review after conferring with the governor and his staff on what their expectations were for the appropriation.” The pilot program was launched in 2002 in seven circuits — the First, Fourth, Ninth, 12th, 17th, and 20th — with $2 million, followed by $1.5 million in 2003, $1 million in 2004, then zero in 2005.With this year’s infusion of dollars, legal grantees will apply for grants administered by The Florida Bar Foundation.“This is great news for all Floridians, because it means that Florida is back in the ranks of the vast majority of states where government does something about the need for all people to have access to our civil-justice system,” said Foundation President William H. Davis of Tallahassee.“At the Foundation, we are especially pleased that the legislature and the governor have recognized the value of the pilot program we have administered for the last several years.“We are very confident that the program will demonstrate, to everyone concerned, that civil legal assistance has a wonderful, positive payoff for our state, as well as for the individuals and families involved; and that we will make more progress in the legislature and the Governor’s Mansion in the years ahead. We all owe a debt of gratitude to the visionaries and heroes who have so doggedly pursued this highest of our civic obligations: the pursuit of equal access to justice. Without them, this would never have occurred.”Rep. Dudley Goodlette, R-Naples, who shepherded the bill through the legislature said: “I couldn’t be happier than where we are and I was delighted the governor saw fit to leave it in the budget. It advances what I believe is a worthy expenditure of taxpayer dollars.”Goodlette especially thanked Rep. Don Davis, R-Jacksonville Beach, and Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, both chairs of their respective chambers’ Transportation & Economic Development Appropriations committees, where the act has been funded from its inception.Russell said he was happy to see that this year the program “finally has some momentum of its own, based on past performance. Hopefully, people in the legislature believe in it. Even though we are losing Dudley (Goodlette) next year (due to term limits), the legislators understand the benefits of the program and can use it as a benefit for their own constituents.”While legislators could always refer their constituents with civil legal problems to legal aid offices, Russell said, “Now they can send them with the knowledge the state is doing its part to share in the burden of providing legal help. Most are solved without litigation, but by empowering people with knowledge. When landlords know that tenants know the law, they become better landlords. That’s what this program has done. It’s enabled people to secure entitlements they had coming to them, but they just didn’t know it.”According to Foundation figures, for the three years spanning 2003-05 that the Foundation received FACLA funding, 14,631 individuals and families were served by the program. Another 22,488 received information about their legal rights, either from presentations, brochures, or one-on-one meetings. In addition, the representations resulted in the clients receiving millions of dollars in lump sum and monthly federal benefits that has eased demand on some state resources.The legislation creating the Florida Access to Civil Legal Assistance Act in 2002 spelled out that “legislature finds that the lack of adequate and equitable legal services available to the indigent population, particularly the children and elderly of this state, unnecessarily burdens existing social and human services programs.”Eligible clients must have incomes equal to or below 150 percent of federal poverty guidelines. And at least 80 percent of funds shall be based annually by county on a per capita basis upon the number of persons in the county whose income is 125 percent or less of federal poverty guidelines. The money is to be used to “secure the legal rights of eligible clients relating to family law, juvenile law, entitlements to government benefits, protection from domestic violence, elder and child abuse, and immigration by providing legal assistance and education regarding legal rights and duties under the law.” Senior Editor Gary Blankenship contributed to this reportlast_img

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