Legal Aid Stable, But Trouble On Horizon?

, The Connecticut Law Tribune

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Jamey Bell
Jamey Bell

Steve Eppler-Epstein, executive director of Connecticut Legal Services, said legal aid leaders will lobby the legislature to renew a statute that calls for court filing fee revenues to be funneled to legal aid agencies.

One positive note is that the most recent fundraising efforts for legal aid agencies have reaped almost twice as much money as campaigns conducted before the financial crisis of five or six years ago.

The state's three major legal aid agencies find themselves in better shape than they were five years ago, when a major source of funding dried up as the result of the declining resources available Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts.

But they're not going to get too comfortable. Right on the horizon, in 2015, the lifeboat that has saved legal aid programs that serve low-income clients from sinking in red ink is set to disappear. A statute providing for increased state court fees, with the proceeds funneled to the legal aid agencies, is scheduled to "sunset" in 2015.

"If that happens," said Susan Nofi-Bendici, executive director of New Haven Legal Assistance Association, "loss of this new funding source generated by the 2012 filing fee legislation would mean another funding cliff, and reduction of staff and services."

She and other leaders of legal aid organizations are already lobbying lawmakers to make permanent the filing fee increases, which raised $4.6 million for legal aid in the last fiscal year. "We will be asking the legislature to eliminate the sunset provision," said Steve Eppler-Epstein, executive director of Connecticut Legal Services.

The Connecticut Bar Association is supporting that effort. On Dec. 16, the CBA's Board of Governors approved a measure to support legislation that could eliminate that provision, CBA president Kim Knox said.

Eppler-Epstein and other legal aid executives said, for now, their finances are stable. Private fundraising has been a big part of recovery from the financial crisis following the 2008 Wall Street meltdown, as longtime donors, including law firms and corporate legal departments, have stepped up their financial support.

"Overall, private fundraising is holding steady," Nofi-Bendici said. "We are so grateful for these individuals and law firms who are committed to making legal services available, and justice accessible, to those who are most in need."

Jamey Bell, executive director of Greater Harford Legal Aid, said private fundraising has increased in each of the past three years, from $415,000 in 2010 to over $450,000 this past year. "We have really strong support from the Hartford-based law firms, and United Technologies Corp." she said.

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