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Should Lawyers Pay More Dues To Help The Poor Get Legal Aid?

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If you walk into Legal Services of Greater Miami on any given weekday morning, there are rows of plastic chairs filled with people looking for help with legal issues. Over the past couple of years, though, it’s been the various legal service and aid providers themselves that have needed help -- financial help.

To make up for significant loss of funding in recent years, Florida Legal Services, the umbrella organization, is floating an idea to get more money. Through the Florida Supreme Court, it will ask the Florida Bar to up its dues -- to have lawyers pitch in more.

Florida Legal Services is the statewide advocate of local aid organizations. Together with a few other supporters, it’s asking the Bar to increase membership dues by $100 per year. That money will go into a pot of money called the Florida Bar Foundation, which goes toward legal-aid efforts.

“We are in a very, very difficult time right now," says Margaret Zehren, deputy director of Legal Services of Greater Miami. "It’s an unprecedented time of great need by many, many vulnerable people in our community and we are really doing everything in our power to meet that need."

Credit Wilson Sayre
A graph showing losses in funding sits across from Margaret Zehren's deck at Legal Service of Greater Miami.

In Zehren’s is a colorful graph beautifying a painfully clear picture: The organization has had significant decreases in funding since 2011.

Responsible for a big part of that decrease is a shrinking Florida Bar Foundation. The foundation is one of the single largest funders of local legal service providers in the state. Its income shrunk over 87 percent, from $44 million a year to $5 million a year.

The proposed increase would bring dues, bringing them to $365, which translates to and extra $10 million a year.

“We don’t deny that Florida lawyers do a lot for legal assistance to the poor,” says Kent Spuhler, director of Florida Legal Services. “On the other hand, they have a professional responsibility to ensure there is access to our legal system. We can’t pursue the rule of law if there are large segments of our population that have no access to our legal system. So lawyers do have a special obligation.”

But Florida Bar President Eugene Pettis thinks lawyers are already taking on enough of that responsibility: “I can tell you every corner of this state that I cross, I hear lawyers struggling to make ends meet as well.”

He thinks legal services both statewide and locally need to look for other sources of funding, like the corporate world, instead of seeking more from already-tapped resources.

The graph back in Zehren's office shows private funds were such a small part of Legal Services' funding back in 2011, you almost can’t see it. Moving over to projected funding in 2015, those private funds will be the second largest source of funding. And yet, overall, funds are still down almost $1 million.

The Florida Bar Board of Governors voted earlier this year not to support Florida Legal Services in its quest to increase dues. That will not prevent the Florida Supreme Court from making its own decision about the matter, though, which could make the change anyway.

“We know it’s an uphill battle,” says Spuhler. “But frankly we don't have much in the way of alternatives. Too many families are going to be severely harmed, so we don’t feel that we have a choice. We need to go forward to try and protect those families.”

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