TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) –Florida’s high court heard arguments Tuesday on whether attorneys should get a price hike in Bar fees to help meet the legal needs of poor Floridians.

Former Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero is leading the charge on behalf of more than 500 other lawyers, many of them legal aid attorneys, who signed a petition asking The Florida Bar to consider raising the current $265 membership by up to $100 per year to bail out shrinking funds earmarked for legal-services groups across the state.

The Florida Bar unanimously opposed the fee hike, which Barry Richard, a lawyer representing the Bar, said would amount to a tax, something the Supreme Court lacks the authority to impose.

As funding for legal aid has shriveled, demands for services have skyrocketed from low- and moderate-income individuals seeking assistance with foreclosures and domestic disputes and with acquiring Social Security and veterans’ benefits.

While some of the justices seemed sympathetic to the issue, they also expressed doubts that increasing lawyers’ membership fees would solve the problem.

“I think it should be an embarrassment to the entire state. My concern is that even if we approve your petition (to increase the fees), it won’t do anything immediately. It’s my concern that this petition isn’t … going to help the situation,” Justice Barbara Pariente said.

In a nearly hour-long question-and-answer period Tuesday morning, Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga commended Cantero and the legal aid lawyers for bringing the issue to the forefront and acknowledged that it could take years before recommendations from the 27-member Commission on Access to Civil Justice, which Labarga, named last week, could be implemented.

But, Labarga said, the $10 million that could be raised by hiking membership fees on the state’s 100,000 lawyers won’t be enough to cover the $30 million drop in funds caused by the economic downturn.

“We’re not fixing it. And there’s no strategy from what I see as to how we’re going to fix this in the future. I’m looking for a permanent fix. I’m looking for a way that we’re not going to have to do this every year,” Labarga said. “Why not let people study this subject, because I think for it to be a fix it requires not just the Bar, it requires the Legislature. It would require the business community. It has to be a societal type of fix. … Otherwise we’re just putting a Band-Aid and kicking the can down the road.”

But Cantero argued that the money would help prevent some Floridians from ending up homeless because they lacked legal representation in foreclosure cases and would ensure that others get services they need. The Bar could impose the fee increase temporarily while Labarga’s commission comes up with a long-term plan, the former justice said.

“We’re not going to fix everything but as lawyers, as the judicial system … if we don’t care about those people, and we’re in the justice system, nobody else is going to care about them,” he said.

The attempt to hike the annual dues, which have not increased since 2001, sparked an outcry in the legal community and created a rift over how much of the onus lawyers should bear to fund legal-services groups throughout the state. The Florida Bar contends that the problem is a societal one which should be shared by all citizens who can afford it.

Richard argued that the hundreds of lawyers who are requesting that the membership fees be increased should lobby the Legislature and other lawyers to come up with the money. Lawyers already donate thousands of hours in pro bono work each year and paid $4.8 million last year in contributions in lieu of the pro bono hours, which can include activities other than representing poor clients in court.

“If the Bar has not done enough in this regard it needs to step up and do more. The Bar raises substantial sums of money from lawyers to lobby the Legislature or to attempt to pass referenda when it thinks it’s important,” Richard told the justices. “I suspect that with the appropriate leadership more lawyers could be persuaded to do a great deal more, particularly in this period of crisis.”

But Pariente seemed skeptical, noting that Gov. Rick Scott this year vetoed $2 million set aside by the Legislature for “civil legal assistance” in the budget. Scott has red-lined the funds every year since he took office in 2011.

“Your solution is the Legislature should fund. There’s no prospect that’s going to happen,” she said.

And she pointed out that, even if the court granted the petition to raise the fees, only the Bar, which has already resoundingly rejected the idea, would have the authority to do so.

Those on both sides agree that funding for legal-services groups — which receive money from the Florida Bar Foundation, counties and the federal government — is in dire straits. The chief source of the foundation’s funding is interest from lawyers’ trust accounts. Because of historically low-interest rates, that money has dropped 88 percent in recent years — from $44 million in 2007 to $5.5 million in 2012. 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 also gave the foundation a $6 million bridge loan this year to help cover the legal-services funding shortage.

Money from the counties has also shriveled because of a plunge in property tax collections caused by the bursting of the state’s real-estate bubble.

A campaign led by The Bar several years ago netted just $33,000 for the effort.

On the steps of the courthouse from which he once issued legal opinions, Cantero told reporters that, unless the court acts, more legal service lawyers will lose their jobs and more low-income Floridians will suffer.

“Everybody’s pointing fingers at each other about whose responsibility it is,” he said after appearing before the court. “It’s not going to totally fix the problem but it’s going to provide services for those who don’t get services now.”

But Richard insisted that the burden should be shared equally.

(The News Service of Florida’s Dara Kam contributed to this report.) 

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