A proposed $70 million cut in federal legal aid would devastate a Connecticut clearinghouse that assists 15,000 clients a year and further hobble three other agencies still reeling from a dramatic drop in state-based funds, officials said.
Janice Chiaretto, executive director of Statewide Legal Services, said her agency is receiving about $2.7 million this year in federal Legal Services Corp. funding. The proposed cut would mean a $500,000 reduction, or the equivalent of half a dozen staff positions and thousands of clients assisted. Statewide Legal Services is the only Connecticut agency to receive the federal funds, but others would feel the loss because many of their cases are pre-screened and referred by Statewide.
"It would be enormous," said Chiaretto of the proposed cut.
The cut would represent about 16 percent of her approximately $3 million budget, which also includes a little less than $300,000 from state legal aid fees and private donations.
Statewide Legal Services serves as a triage center and clearinghouse for legal aid requests in Connecticut, Chiaretto said. Its staff of 30 provides direct service and advice in some non-criminal matters, and refers other cases, ranging from foreclosure to domestic violence, to three other legal aid organizations: Connecticut Legal Services, New Haven Legal Assistance Association and Greater Hartford Legal Aid.
Pat Kaplan, executive director of the NHLAA, said up to 50 percent of the nearly 2,000 clients assisted annually by her agency are referred by Statewide Legal Services.
"If their resources are depleted, it's harder for people to get through on their phones. They refer cases to us. Our clients will be impacted," said Kaplan, whose organization was one of the first legal aid providers in the country.
The federal cut is being considered at a time when state organizations are still adjusting to precipitous drops in state-based funding. In 2007, about $20 million for Connecticut legal aid came from so-called Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts, the interest-bearing accounts lawyers are required to open for client funds related to mortgages and other short-term transactions. With the collapse of the housing market and the recession, that funding dropped to under $4 million in 2008. The number was increased by about $8 million in 2009 by court filing fee increases approved by the state legislature and other measures.
Still, overall budgets at the Connecticut legal aid agencies are still down 18 percent from 2007 levels.
Branford D. Brown, executive director of Greater Hartford Legal Aid, said cuts to the statewide legal services center would have a significant impact on his agency, which assisted 2,197 clients last year and has a $4.3 million budget funded by state and private sources.
"Statewide is our primary intake system; if they had drastic reductions that certainly would impact our clients," he said.
Steven Eppler-Epstein, executive director of Connecticut Legal Services, said any cut in federal funding would be particularly difficult in a down economy.
"This comes at a time when our clients are obviously in enormous need. There are more people now. We've taken cuts and we've been able to continue to serve large volumes, but there's been a lot of pressure on our system," he said.
Eppler-Epstein said the 80 members of his staff, including 50 lawyers, still are taking one furlough day a month as a result of the state IOLTA cuts. His organization serves about 5,000 legal aid clients from everywhere in the state except greater Hartford and New Haven.
Statewide Legal Services was created in 1996 in response to federal funding restrictions that prohibited recipients from public advocacy and certain litigation targeting the federal government. Rather than lose the funding altogether, the Connecticut organizations collaborated on the idea of a clearinghouse that would both assist clients and refer cases to agencies that could continue to focus on other areas of the law.
Chiaretto said the cuts would not only affect traditionally low-income clients who otherwise couldn't afford a lawyer but what she called the "nouveau poor."
"These people were once not income eligible. Once they might have had a $100,000-a-year job; now they don't. Now they might be facing foreclosures or evictions."
Meanwhile, she said, "the working poor got poorer."