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Faced with a constant struggle for funding, D.C. legal-aid providers represent myriad clients in a fractured system that allows many poor people needing legal help to slip through the cracks. Local legal-aid groups hope a $3.2 million infusion of public funds will help solve those problems, but it remains to be seen how the money will be spent. Approved by the D.C. Council last October, the funding is the largest influx of cash legal-aid groups have seen in years and the first time the city has directly funded civil legal aid. “We have a lot of little programs with diverse practice models. The downside is, we don’t have a very strong core to handle basic legal services,” says Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia. “It limits our ability to do anything grand because we’re so spread out.” The society handles about 7,000 requests for legal assistance each year but is forced to turn away most people who need and qualify for help because of a limited staff and budget. And Legal Aid is not alone in its dilemma. Nine out of every 10 low-income residents seeking legal representation in the District are unable to find help, according to a 2003 D.C. Bar Foundation report. “It’s very painful to turn away all those clients knowing how desperately they need our help,” says Judith Sandalow, co-chairwoman of the D.C. Consortium of Legal Service Providers and executive director of the Children’s Law Center. The D.C. Bar Foundation, which is responsible for parceling out the new funding, has emphasized that it wants to see joint proposals from legal-aid groups to help solve the lack of coordination. “One thing about this money is that we’ve called for collaboration among providers,” says Katia Garrett, executive director of the foundation. “The feedback is that this has generated a high level of conversation among providers about how they can work together.” The new funding could provide for the hiring of more legal-aid lawyers, leading to greater access for underserved communities and more representation in the courts. At press time last week, the foundation had received around 10 grant proposals and was expecting to double that number before the close of its Feb. 2 deadline. Ayuda, a legal-services provider for immigrants, plans to file a joint grant request with other immigrant-aid groups, but Executive Director Mauricio Vivero wouldn’t share details about the proposal. “Our approach is that we’re going to be working much more closely to coordinate and facilitate the delivery of service to immigrants,” Vivero says. “For people who don’t speak English, this splintered system is really a barrier.” The Legal Aid Society is also submitting two proposals, one of which is a collaboration with Bread for the City and the Neighborhood Legal Services Program. The joint grant would provide on-the-spot lawyers in landlord-tenant court for people who cannot afford representation but need more than advice. The group’s second request is for additional funding to expand offices in Southeast Washington. The city has an abundance of specialized legal-aid groups. Legal-services providers cater to Asian-Pacific Americans, victims of domestic violence, the homeless, the disabled, children, and even area artists. And although each group plays a specific role for people who cannot afford legal representation, the amount of diversity among providers can be a hindrance. The D.C. Bar Foundation’s 2003 report outlines gaps in the city’s legal services, including a lack of coordination among legal-aid groups. “Clients are frequently referred from one provider to another, and it is not uncommon for a caller to explain that he or she has already called four other places that same day,” the report states. Legal-services providers called for more collaboration in two of the top three solutions offered in the report, recommending systemwide planning and centralized intake for clients. The structure of the D.C. legal-aid system stems in part from cuts in federal funding in the mid-1990s. Smaller service providers popped up to fill the gaps left by larger legal-aid groups that no longer had the capacity to effectively reach people needing legal help. “There is a rich community because we have so many different providers, but I do think we need to be more strategic in working together,” says Patricia Mullahy Fugere, executive director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. The Access to Justice Commission, the 17-member panel that petitioned the city for the new funding, recently issued a report with recommendations on how to improve coordination, but it isn’t yet known whether legal-aid groups will follow those recommendations in their grant requests. The commission proposed that legal-aid staffers responsible for client intake meet on a regular basis to share ideas and improve coordination. The commission also recommended that Lawhelp.org, a Web site with legal information and an updated list of legal-aid groups, be used more effectively to inform the public of available help. Another suggestion centered on a referral network, which could include the creation of a legal-aid hotline and a universal intake form. “We need to work out a hard-wired referral, as opposed to �Oh, call this number, they’ll help you,’ ” says Jan May, the director of AARP Legal Counsel for the Elderly, which operates a legal hotline for D.C. residents 60 years old and older. The hotline allows clients to speak directly to an attorney whose sole job is running the hotline, allowing for improved advice and referrals. AARP Legal Counsel may partner with Legal Aid to establish a systemwide hotline under the foundation’s privately funded grant program, but applications for that program are not due until April. Some of the public funding is already earmarked within the legislation for specific projects, including $250,000 to repay law-school loans for legal-aid lawyers who forgo the larger salaries available in private practice. An unspecified amount will help create a shared bank of interpreters for all D.C. legal-aid groups. The public funds also will help bolster legal services for housing issues, one of the largest problems facing low-income people within the city, and provide greater access to people in underserved communities, including Southeast and Northeast Washington. Because the $3.2 million appropriation covers only one year, the whole process will begin again in the fall, but Peter Edelman, chair of the Access to Justice Commission, hopes civil legal-aid funding will become a regular part of the District’s budget. “I think that you’re going to see, over a period of time, thousands of people getting legal representation who otherwise wouldn’t have it,” he says.
The Common Good is a monthly column devoted to the pro bono community. Attila Berry can be contacted at [email protected].

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