TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – A coalition of attorneys, including former Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero, filed a petition Monday with the state’s top court seeking to hike fees on lawyers to help fund legal services for the poor.

The Florida Bar wasted no time reaffirming its opposition to the effort to increase Bar fees by $100, noting there are lawyers struggling to make ends meet.

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Bar President Eugene Pettis said the Bar doesn’t oppose the intent of the petition, rather how the funding “crisis” and the continued delivery of legal aid is addressed.

The “Access to Justice Petition” requests the Florida Supreme Court to raise the $265 cap on The Florida Bar’s annual membership fees, with the added charge going to The Florida Bar Foundation, which funds legal aid to the poor.

“At the moment, thousands of Floridians go without access to justice because they cannot afford legal services,” Cantero said in a videotaped release on Monday. “By raising our dues by this modest amount we have the ability to change that simple truth.”

Legal-services groups receive money from The Florida Bar Foundation, counties and the federal government. The chief source of the foundation’s funding is interest from lawyers’ trust accounts, but that has suffered in recent years because of decreases in interest generated from the accounts. The legal aid fund has dropped from $44 million in 2008 to $5.58 million in 2012.

Money from counties has also been reduced because property-tax collections suffered after the state’s real-estate bubble burst. In addition, Gov. Rick Scott has vetoed money the Legislature placed in the state budget for “civil legal assistance” the past four years.

The foundation has supplemented funding for legal services with money from reserves, which it projects will run out by 2017. The foundation has earmarked about $15 million for legal services this year.

The Bar’s Board of Governors unanimously voted in March to oppose the petition to increase dues. The foundation has voted to remain neutral on the issue.

Pettis, in a conference call with reporters Monday, said the Bar is working on alternative measures to help people access legal assistance.

The Bar’s Board of Governors is also looking to provide a $6 million loan to serve as a “bridge” the next two years, until the alternative programs can be created and implemented.

“I don’t think putting $10 million a year, in this year or next year, is going to resolve this problem until we look at a long-term solution,” Pettis said.

Kent Spuhler, Florida Legal Services executive director, argued the Bar foundation shouldn’t be borrowing money while in a fiscal crisis.

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“That’s certainly what we tell our clients, cut up the credit cards, stop the bleeding,” Spuhler said.

Spuhler said the petitioners intend to ask the court to expedite the case, which could take 18 months, so that it’s decided before the 2015 membership fees are due. The court is expected to set a comment period for Bar members to chime in.

The fee increase would be the first since 2001.

Kristine Knab, Legal Services of North Florida executive director, said the program helps take the burden off other social services.

“If we can help somebody get an injunction for protection and a dissolution of marriage, who is a domestic violence victim, they may not need the services of Refuge House (a program that serves victims) as often or as much, and they’re already overloaded,” Knab said. “Additionally, if you don’t have access to civil litigation, oftentimes those will escalate into criminal disputes. So you have more law enforcement that is needed, you have more people at risk of harm, you have more medical attention that is needed.”

More than 520 lawyers have signed the petition. The Bar has nearly 99,000 members.

The state has also seen a decrease in the number of lawyers working in legal aid, which had the equivalent of 449 in 2010, but stood at 373 by the end of 2013.

In 2012, legal-aid lawyers handled 89,720 cases. More than half of the cases dealt with family issues, such as divorce or child custody, and housing cases, like foreclosure.

Pettis said Bar members also contribute significantly in legal aid, providing about 1.7 million hours of pro bono work in 2012-2013, which could be seen as $340 million in in-kind assistance.

This report is by Jim Turner with The News Service of Florida.


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