For the first time in over a decade, lawyers and other advocates are being organized to gather together in a large group effort to promote and defend the critical role that our civil legal aid system plays in ensuring access to justice for the indigent of Washington.
KCBA asks you to lend your voice to this endeavor!
Civil legal aid refers to the partnership between the few hundred paid staff attorneys who carry a full caseload while working for legal aid organizations such as the Northwest Justice Project, and the several thousand volunteer attorneys who serve in programs sponsored by nonprofit organizations such as KCBA. Together, this network provides free legal services to tens of thousands of clients in our state each year.
While the services are at no cost to the clients, funds must be expended to pay the salaries of those in both the legal aid organizations and the volunteer programs (e.g., KCBA has three full-time attorneys mentoring the hundreds of volunteer attorneys in our Housing Justice Project). Those funds come from a mixture of both voluntary donations/grants and direct appropriations from the federal and state governments.
For that portion that comes from the State, it is becoming increasingly difficult to get the attention of legislators to focus on the need for financial resources for civil legal aid.
News coverage of the Legislature in the last months is full of stories about the political maneuvering over what the appropriate response to the Supreme Court’s McCleary decision should be. As a result, it’s easy to forget that our elected officials are still working through other policy and funding issues. One of those other issues must be what the necessary dollar amount is for our state to adequately provide a legal safety net to the most vulnerable among us, namely low-income residents who are facing legal problems without fair access to justice, which can only be obtained when lawyers can assist them.
This issue of funding for civil legal aid has received increased attention in the last year after the publication of the 2015 Civil Legal Needs Study. Commissioned by the Washington Supreme Court, it found significant disparities in how low-income Washingtonians access the legal system.
Among the more alarming statistics is that more than 75 percent of that population navigates the justice system without any legal assistance. In addition, the study points out that the federal “minimum access” ratio for low-income houses to legal aid providers should be one attorney to every 5,000 residents. In Washington, that ratio is currently one to every 11,500 residents.
Elected officials in Olympia need to be educated about this problem and then asked to solve it. But who can educate the legislators? It doesn’t seem right to ask low-income residents facing these serious legal problems to have to plead for funding a safety net. That work seems more appropriately the responsibility of those of us in the legal profession to speak out for our neighbors who are struggling to access the justice system.
That’s why KCBA is asking all members who understand the special obligation that the bar has to speak out for our justice system to lend their voices to Legal Aid Lobby Day 2017. With support from the Equal Justice Coalition, which is a group of nonprofit organizations such as KCBA that care deeply about the justice safety net, KCBA members will be assisted with scheduling appointments with elected officials, learning the “talking points” and refreshing their advocacy skills to promote this important message.
This is scheduled to be a full-day event in Olympia, but the organizers can make use of even a half day of your time if that’s what you can spare. The announcement at the bottom of this page has all the details — or please reach out to me if you have questions, too.
I’m planning to go Olympia on February 16 to lobby for civil legal aid. Will I see you there?
Andrew Prazuch is KCBA’s executive director. He can be reached by email (email@example.com) or phone (206-267-7061).
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