March 2017 Bar Bulletin
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March 2017 Bar Bulletin

Legal Aid Gets Boost

 

Dear Editor:

We are the chair and vice chair of the Civil Legal Aid Oversight Committee. The Oversight Committee is the bipartisan statutory body that oversees the Office of Civil Legal Aid and makes recommendations to the Legislature on matters relating to state-funded civil legal aid.

The Oversight Committee appreciates the King County Bar Association’s leadership on a wide range of efforts over the decades to ensure legal protection and a voice for the most marginalized members of our community. We also thank the KCBA Board of Trustees for its recent resolution in support of our efforts to address the civil justice crisis documented in the 2015 Civil Legal Needs Study Update. We encourage KCBA members to heed the call from Executive Director Andy Prazuch (Bar Bulletin, February 2017) to actively support the Office of Civil Legal Aid’s FY 2017–19 budget request.

The 2015 Civil Legal Needs Study Update (CLNS Update) presents a deeply troubling picture of the scope and prevalence of legal problems experienced by low-income Washington residents; problems that affect the physical safety, economic security, access to essential health care, and residential stability of these individuals and their families.

The CLNS Update documents significant racial disparities in the substance and prevalence of civil legal problems experienced by low-income Washington residents and confirms that more than 50% of low-income Washington residents are unable to self-
diagnose when their problems are legal in nature and self-refer for legal assistance. Indeed, more than 75% of those who experience civil legal problems do not get any legal help whatsoever. The disturbing result of this reality is that more than 60% of low-income respondents have limited or no confidence that the courts or the civil justice system will help people like them solve important civil legal problems.

The Oversight Committee spent the past year working with a broad community of stakeholders to develop a comprehensive policy and budget response to the 2015 CLNS Update. The result of our work is a four-year Civil Justice Reinvestment Plan. This plan will invest in technology systems and tools to increase the ability of low-
income people to self-diagnose their legal problems and take action to solve those problems early and without the need for legal assistance. And, where legal help is needed, these tools will provide information about where and how to get it.

The Reinvestment Plan also seeks to build a solid and stable floor of legal aid capacity (staffed and pro bono) throughout the state so that by 2021 there will be one FTE legal aid attorney (including the FTE equivalent contributed by volunteer attorneys) for every 5,000 people at or below 125% of the federal poverty guideline. The full Civil Justice Reinvestment Plan is posted at http://ocla.wa.gov/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Civil-Legal-Aid-Reinvestment-Plan-Final-9-21-16.pdf.

Our bipartisan Oversight Committee, which includes four legislative members, unanimously endorsed the Reinvestment Plan and the Office of Civil Legal Aid’s FY 2017–19 budget request designed to implement Phase I of the Plan. We believe action is needed now to ensure that all who need the protection of our civil justice system have the ability to get the help they need before their problems spiral further out of control.

By investing in the manner outlined in the Reinvestment Plan, we will deepen the public-private partnership that has been the backbone of our state’s legal aid system. With the full-throated support of the KCBA and its individual members, we are confident that this effort will be successful.

—Jennifer A. Greenlee
and Judge Michael Spearman

Jennifer A. Greenlee is WSBA appointee to and the chair of the bipartisan Civil Legal Aid Oversight Committee. Judge Michael Spearman (Court of Appeals, Div. 1) was appointed to the Civil Legal Aid Oversight Committee by the Board for Judicial Administration and serves as vice chair.

 


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