Federal cuts have legal aid cutting service to the bone

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The $38 billion in federal budget cuts announced by Congress this month will affect a number of Colorado programs, including Colorado Legal Services.

The statewide legal service will lose $170,000 of federal aid, and other cuts will probably total more than $500,000, Colorado Legal Services Executive Director Jonathan Asher said.

The nonprofit offers free legal aid to low income, disabled and elderly people. Cases involve domestic abuse, child custody, child support payments, housing matters, disability benefits and power of attorney, among other issues.

Last year, the service helped about 11,000 people. The Colorado Springs office, 617 S. Nevada Ave., had 928 requests for assistance.

But the federal budget cuts along with expected state cuts and the fallout from the economic downturn have created a perfect storm of budget woes for the service that will hurt its ability to help the needy, Asher said.

“Access to lawyers is frequently essential to achieving meaningful justice,” he said. “And it appears we are not ready to make justice available to low-income people.”

Because of the cuts, the Colorado Springs Legal Services office, which has 10 staff members, will not fill a vacant paralegal position, said Theresa Kilgore, managing attorney of the local office.

This means only two paralegals will assist four Legal Services lawyers.

Some people seeking legal advice will be turned away because the office is prioritizing to help people in exigent circumstances, Kilgore said.

Those who’ve lost employee health benefits or are in a domestic abuse situation or are facing eviction will likely be passed over.

“We’ve had to go through and define when clients are in an emergency situation,” she said.

The Colorado Legal Services’ budget for 2010 was $9 million, of which more than $800,000 went to the Colorado Springs office, which serves El Paso, Teller and Lincoln counties, Asher said.

While the $170,000 federal cut might seem like a drop in the bucket given the services’ multi-million-dollar budget, it is likely other donations to the Colorado Legal Services will also be cut.

State funding, about $900,000 last year to the service, is expected to dip to less than $675,000, Asher said.

In 2008 the Colorado Lawyer Trust Account Foundation, funded by the pooled interest in lawyers’ trust accounts, gave $2.4 million to Colorado Legal Services, foundation executive director Diana Poole said.

But given the federal government’s lowering of the interest rate over the last two years to get people to spend during the financial crunch, the money generated by the trust account has dropped by hundreds of thousands of dollars, Poole said.

This means less money is available for Colorado Legal Services, country bar associations and other state pro bono outfits.

This year’s COLTAF donation, to be made in full June 30, to the Legal Services is projected to be $1.76 million, Poole said. That’s a drop of $640,000 from the 2008-09 fiscal year donation.

Funding woes could not be coming at a worse time, Asher said.

The recession and its aftermath have caused people living paycheck-to-paycheck to fall into foreclosure, eviction and other messes that can only be remedied by legal efforts, Asher said.

“Demand is greater (for civil legal services), while resources are declining,” he said.

Statewide, about 1,000 attorneys work pro bono on civil cases. In El Paso County, 390 attorneys are on the pro bono Legal Services panel, with 30 either taking cases or volunteering in the Springs office or at the monthly pro bono divorce clinic, Kilgore said.

One of the pro bono participants is Kenneth Schroer, of Schroer Law Offices in Colorado Springs.

For six years, Schroer has offered his expertise in estate planning and probate, which includes drafting wills and granting power of attorney. He sees up to three pro bono clients a month.

“It is a group disenfranchised to start with,” Schroer said of those using Colorado Legal Services. “If their (legal) problems don’t get solved at the initial level, they tend to get worse.”

Schroer said that the services’ budget crunch could be alleviated if more civil-law attorneys took pro bono work.

Colorado Legal Services estimates that only 50 civil-law attorneys out of every 1,000 in the state accept pro bono cases.

“More attorneys need to help out,” Schroer said. “Taking pro bono cases is an important part of being an attorney.”