For the hundreds of thousands toiling low-income jobs in South Florida, hiring an attorney is about as realistic as buying a Bentley. But that doesn't mean poor Miamians don't end up in sticky legal situations. In fact, between employers refusing to hand over wages and predatory lenders foreclosing on houses, they probably need a good lawyer more often than middle-class folks.
So where do they turn for help in civil cases? Usually to one of the half dozen legal-aid societies in town, like Dade Legal Aid or Legal Services of Greater Miami. At least, that's where they used to turn. Thanks to a remarkably stingy stance by the Florida Bar -- and Gov. Rick Scott's disdain for funding programs that help the poor -- they may not have that resource much longer.
A combination of Scott's budget vetoes and the bar's refusal to add a new $100 fee to its membership dues mean that Florida's legal-aid budget is about to take a 40 percent whack. Pending a last-minute emergency rescue by the Florida Supreme Court next month, hundreds of attorneys who help the poor will be out of a job.
"We have reached the crisis stage," says Kent Spuhler, executive director of Florida Legal Services Inc.
The funding problem has been building for years for legal-aid groups. A significant piece of their budget comes from the Florida Bar, which paid from interest on attorney's fees. But with interest rates at historic lows, the contribution has plunged from $36 million in grants in 2010 to about $7 million next year.
To make matters worse, Florida is one of only three states that don't contribute to legal-aid programs. That's thanks to Scott, who has now vetoed all funding for the programs for four years running.
So earlier this year, Spuhler's group came up with a stop-gap solution: adding the $100 fee to the state's attorneys' dues. But the Florida Bar wouldn't play ball, despite more than 500 attorneys signing a petition backing the plan. The reason? The bar says its members already volunteer plenty and donate to legal services on their own. The group says it was also inundated with negative comments from members about the fee increase.
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"Let us not forget that the current economic malaise has not left our profession untouched," Miami attorney David Lazarovic told the bar.
Spuhler's group has challenged that decision to the Supreme Court, which has the power to set bar fees. It'll present an oral argument on December 2. He fears what a loss will mean for the state.
"We started with 486 attorneys for an under-poverty population of over 3 million," Spuhler says. "We've already lost 100 lawyers in legal aid since 2010... If nothing turns around, we're heading to 286 attorneys next year."