Bars come together to take on Virginia Legal Aid funding crisis
by Lisa P. O'Donnell
On Tuesday, October 2, I attended a meeting of leaders of statewide bar associations. That meeting was called to bring us together to discuss the growing funding crisis facing legal aid in Virginia – a crisis that affects us all because it ultimately damages access to legal representation, which affects equal access to justice.
VTLA and the VBA organized this meeting and both associations were well represented at the meeting. VTLA Board members Joanna Suyes and Nathan Veldhuis and our Executive Director Jack Harris also attended the meeting. Bar groups represented in addition to VTLA and the VBA were the VSB, the Virginia Women Attorneys Association, the Virginia Association of Defense Attorneys, the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the AsianPacific American Bar Association of Virginia, and the Local Government Attorneys of Virginia.
We listened to Mark Braley, Executive Director of the Legal Services Corporation of Virginia (LSCV) and John Whitfield, Executive Director of Blue Ridge Legal Services present the dismal legal aid funding situation. Here are a few of the points they emphasized:
There are 349 Virginians per active attorney in Virginia but there are 6,184 poor Virginians per legal aid attorney.
- Federal funding for legal aid has been severely reduced in recent years and has now reached its lowest level in inflation adjusted dollars since that funding source was initiated in 1976. Those cuts exceeded a million dollars last year.
- Interest on Lawyers’Trust Accounts (IOLTA) funding, which as recently as 2006 produced $500,000 a month in revenue for legal aid, now produces less than $50,000 a month, total reductions of more than four million dollars a year.
- Filing fee revenue has dropped more than $500,000 a year.
- Reductions in grants and private funding (from local governments and non-profits) total more than $300,000 a year.
- As a result, just in the past three years across the state, legal aid has lost 34 lawyers (21% of total attorney staffing) and another 27 support staff positions — this at a time when the poverty population has increased by 32% over the last decade.
- Legal aid programs statewide are on triage. Clients who would have received representation in the past are now being offered advice only, to help them represent themselves. Many more are not receiving any service.
One legal aid office closed this year, and program directors are considering closing others. The time may soon come when legal aid services are not available in large areas of Virginia.
Virginia is now one of only five states that do not require attorneys to participate in IOLTA. For those states that have made the transition from voluntary to mandatory IOLTA, revenues generated have at least doubled.
LSCV is asking Virginia lawyers to actively support legislation that would free the Supreme Court of Virginia to require lawyers to participate in IOLTA —authority that is currently denied by § 54.1-3915.1 of the Virginia Code. This legislation has been requested in the past, in fact last year it failed to emerge from a House committee by just one vote, after opposition from the Virginia Bankers Association.
Concerned about how much extra work will be required by your office to comply with mandatory IOLTA if it becomes the law in Virginia? The answer is none. Interest “as usual” would simply accrue to your IOLTA account by the bank with a taxpayer ID to LSCV and payment is made to them. A ton of extra work by your bank? In fact, most of the major banks that operate in states other than Virginia already have the system in place to administer and direct mandatory IOLTA payments.
Why should VTLA members care? Our bylaws indicate that our organization strives “to do all things necessary to uphold and maintain the traditionally high standard of the legal profession and the administration of justice in the Commonwealth of Virginia.” This simply can’t be accomplished without the dedicated work provided by legal aid.
I hope and expect that VTLA will go on record to support increased funding for legal aid, whether that funding is the immediate increase available from more general revenue funding or increases to filing fees or the longer term relief available ultimately through Supreme Court of Virginia approval of mandatory IOLTA.
I also hope that each of you, as individuals and as firms, will help this crisis by sending a strong message of support for increased funding for legal aid because you believe unequal access to justice is not acceptable. VTLA will provide you the information you need to reach legislators in support of legal aid funding and we look forward to working with other state and local bar associations throughout the Commonwealth on this critical issue. Stay tuned for more information!