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Gillam

Jacksonville Area Legal Aid: An angel in our community that needs our help

by Braxton Gillam, President of The Jacksonville Bar Association

Legal aid needs include a wide range of legal specialties, with the greatest demands involving family law, landlord-tenant and, not surprisingly, mortgage foreclosure assistance.

Also not surprising, the demands for legal aid services have risen sharply since the financial crisis in 2008 and the significant downturn in the real estate market.

Approximately 25 percent of persons living in Jacksonville are living at or below the poverty level, and consequently qualify for legal aid assistance. Unfortunately, the funding for legal aid service organizations, like Jacksonville Area Legal Aid (JALA), has dwindled during recent years.

JALA has historically been funded by grants from The Florida Bar Foundation. Funding for these grants primarily comes from interest earned on funds held in attorney IOTA trust accounts. As interest rates fell, and have continued to hold at low rates, the funds available to donate to groups like JALA dried up.

Over the last two years, JALA has cut its staff by approximately 25 percent due to reductions in funding. Some staff positions were eliminated and some remaining staff took reductions in salary. As a result, JALA has been forced to reduce services to a growing group of needy and qualified citizens.

More than 250 people seek service from JALA every week, but more than half are being turned away because of the reduction in funding. According to Legal Services Corp., on a national level there is one private attorney for every 429 Americans living above the poverty line, but only one legal aid attorney for every 6,415 people living in poverty. While those numbers are striking, in Northeast Florida there is only one JALA attorney for every 10,667 people living in poverty.

In 2010, Florida TaxWatch examined the economic impact that civil legal aid programs have on the Florida economy. The result is significant.

For every $1 spent on legal aid, $4.78 of economic impact was generated through direct-dollar benefits, federal transfers and avoided costs. Florida TaxWatch estimates that in 2008, legal aid programs in Florida helped to:

• Create more than 3,300 jobs in Florida

• Produce more than $250 million of output in the state economy

• Provide $297 million of disposable income

Think about the cost to this community when a single parent comes home from work and has been locked out of his or her apartment by a landlord.

He or she has legal rights, but without the resources to protect those rights what happens? He or she will almost certainly miss work the next day, which will likely result in difficulties for the employer's business. It may result in a loss of employment.

What about the children? Do the children get fed that night? Do they make it to school the next day? Without legal assistance to address this constructive eviction, the individual is effectively displaced and potentially now homeless. That affects our entire community.

The Florida Bar urges all of its members to support legal aid services, through the provision of pro bono services and through donations to qualified legal aid providers, like JALA. In fact, through the coordinated services of local volunteer attorneys, JALA calculates that in excess of $1.5 million worth of legal services were provided to our community last year.

With the increase in demand for indigent legal services and the corresponding decreases in funding, however, JALA needs more help.

Kathy Para, JALA's pro bono director, said, "The impact of the work of pro bono attorneys throughout Northeast Florida is far-reaching and very significant. In fact, hundreds of attorneys maintain one or more pro bono matters as part of their caseload. We're deeply grateful for each of them. It's just that with the level of need, we need hundreds more."

JALA has primary responsibility to provide indigent legal service for Duval, Nassau, St. Johns, Clay and Baker counties.

Eighty-three percent of JALA's resources are committed to services provided in Duval County, where the largest population of qualified citizens in need of legal aid services lives and works. Unfortunately, due to recent budget constraints, city funding for JALA has dropped to a record low. Without city assistance, JALA will be forced to further reduce staff and services to the community.

In addition to volunteering to provide pro bono services and providing individual donations, JALA needs your voice. Talk to your councilmen and councilwomen; tell them to support JALA. The organization's employees, though most directly impact the citizens they serve, they also benefit our entire community.

JALA has been helping our community meet the legal needs of those in poverty for 80 years and has been an angel to thousands of people in need. This angel needs our help now in order to continue its good work.

Please join me in supporting this worthy organization and help them continue to meet this critical need in our community.

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