To The Editor:
As the New Year begins, legal aid programs dedicated to the assistance of low-income state residents are faced with multiple challenges.
First, the clients we serve are particularly challenged in this terrible economy. Jobs are scarce, especially for those with limited skills or education. As a result, the number of people relying on food stamps in Connecticut has almost doubled since 2007. People with disabilities, who cannot find work in a booming economy, need help even more when times are rough. And people facing discrimination or physical abuse have fewer options.
Legal aid programs can do a lot to help people deal with key life crises – access to health care, freedom from domestic violence, the threat of homelessness, challenges facing the elderly disabled. But the same economy that makes life so hard for poor people continues to take a toll on legal aid programs. The funding measures supported by the bar and enacted by the legislature in 2009 have staved off disaster, but the funding picture continues to worsen. Banks continue to lower the interest they pay on IOLTA accounts, and real estate transactions remain slow.
Legal aid fund balances are running out; and even with shrunken staff size and furlough days, the programs are facing huge deficits. At the same time as IOLTA is dropping, federal funding cuts have hurt our sister agency, Statewide Legal Services.
We appreciate greatly the pro bono work that attorneys do each day for our clients; the Judicial Branch and the Connecticut Bar Association have been vocal and effective during this past year in drawing attention to the growing lack of civil court representation, and have helped recruit pro bono attorneys to support our work. But expanded pro bono efforts require viable legal services programs to support them, and current funding challenges threaten the programs’ ability not only to directly represent clients but also to organize, train and support pro bono efforts.
The good news is that that legal aid staff remain passionate, energetic and effective in fighting to protect low-income people from the worst ravages of bad economic times, and that (as the lists of donors published in the Connecticut Law Tribune demonstrates) there is great support for our work. But our clients and staff need additional financial support from the community and from state government to avoid another round of devastating staff and service cuts. We look forward to communicating with the bar (in part through coverage by the Law Tribune) to keep you posted on the situation facing legal aid programs and our clients, and we will welcome anything you can do to help.
Richard F. Orr
Chair, Connecticut Legal Services
J. L. Pottenger Jr.
Chair, New Haven Legal Assistance Association
Chair, Greater Hartford Legal Aid