Public Interest News Bulletin: July 23, 2010

 This week’s Bulletin brings news and commentary on how resource shortages in Michigan and Missouri public defense offices are being addressed (or not), the spike in pro se litigation throughout the country as more lower- and middle-income people find themselves with legal problems but are unable to afford lawyers, public benefit administration troubles in Indiana, legal services funding cuts on both sides of the Delaware River, how we should be assessing the value of pro bono work, a prison sentence for a former legal services employee who raided the till, and U. of Maryland law students bringing Terrapin love and legal skill to clients all around the globe.

  • 7.22.10 – Columbia Missourian – “Criminal defendants in southwest Missouri will not be eligible for a state public defender until next month because of high caseloads and overworked lawyers. The state public defender system said Thursday that its Springfield office would not accept new cases until August because its 20 lawyers cannot handle any more defendants.”  State government officials from all three branches have been grappling with high public defender caseloads for years, but have been unable to agree on a solution.  It is unclear what courts will do to keep the criminal justice system’s wheels turning in light of this development.  Link to article.
  • 7.22.10 – Wall Street Journal – As a result of the recession, “[a] growing number of people have found themselves in court facing costly financial proceedings such as declaring bankruptcy, fighting foreclosure and litigating employment fights. Adding to the challenge, for many: The high cost of legal representation often prompts them to go it alone.”  Some observers argue that “lawyers have created quasi-monopolies” that ultimately restrict the public’s access to legal services.  And as for low-income individuals who would qualify for free legal services, service providers are dealing with overwhelming client demand and with their own resource shortages.  Link to article.  [Ed. note: also see item 6 below for Washington Post coverage of a recent ABA report on the spike in pro se representation across the country.  And see this 7.22.10 PSLawNet Blog post which aggregates other media coverage of the pro se spike and reactions to it from the legal community.] 
  • 7.20.10 – Associated Press – “For at least a decade, potentially thousands of Indiana’s neediest adults have seen some of their state aid payments slashed simply because they receive food stamps — a practice that advocates and legal experts say is a clear violation of federal law….Under the current system, when the federal government raises food stamp amounts, Indiana officials reduce grocery allowances so a person’s total food benefits do not exceed $200 a month.  But since 1964, federal law has barred states from counting food stamps as income or using them to reduce any other public benefits.”  A spokesperson for the state’s Family and Social Services Administration says that the agency does not think the benefit calculation policy ran afoul of federal law, but “…legal experts say courts have consistently upheld the law that says other assistance cannot be reduced because someone is receiving food stamps…[and]…welfare officials in other states said they were surprised Indiana would even try to count food stamps against other benefits.”  Link to article.
  • 7.20.10 – The Citizen (Georgia) – “A Pike County death penalty case…has drawn national headlines and an effort to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.  The appeal centers on whether the state, by not allowing adequate funding for defense attorneys for Jamie Weis, is violating Weis’ right to a speedy trial.”  When the state’s public defense agency had no funding to continue paying two appointed defense attorneys, the prosecutor in the case requested that the court assign it to two public defenders.  The court did so, and the “removal of Weis’ original attorneys drew the attention of The New York Times, which last week took aim at the theory that [the prosecutor] was able to pick his opponent in court.”  After months of continued delays the defendant appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court on the argument that his constitutional right to a speedy trial was violated by the state.  The court disagreed, but the case may now go to the Supreme Court of the United States.  Link to article.  [Ed note: the PSLawNet Blog has covered the Weis case in several recent posts.  The New York Times article referenced above and links to prior coverage are available in item 3 of our July 9, 2010 Public Interest News Bulletin.]
  • 7.19.10 – Centre Daily Times (Pennsylvania) – MidPenn Legal Services, which serves clients in 18 Keystone State counties, “saw a 23% increase in the demand for its services last year” while dealing with funding decreases totaling $1 million.  The “flat funding has meant a hiring freeze program-wide.”  The economic downturn has caused state funding of legal services programs throughout Pennsylvania to drop from $3.17 million to $3.04 million in the past two years.  This decrease comes in tandem with a much more precipitous drop in IOLTA revenue streams.  Link to article.
  • 7.19.10 – Washington Post – “The economic downturn has sent more people into the court system at a time when they are less able to afford representation and fewer organizations have the resources to provide it pro bono or at a reduced cost.”  A recently issued report from the American Bar Association contains results of survey responses from judges that showed increasing caseloads in home foreclosure, domestic violence, and other issues.  Along with the risen caseloads, many parties are acting pro se, which strains courthouse resources.  “Of the 78 percent of judges who said self-represented individuals had a negative impact on the court, most noted that it slowed courtroom procedure and used more staff time to assist pro se litigants.”  One of the reasons that so many more litigants are representing themselves is that legal services organizations which could provide free help to low-income parties are fighting rising caseloads and shrunken revenue streams of their own.  Link to article.  [Ed. Note: here is a link to the ABA report, the findings of which are characterized as “preliminary”: Report on the Survey of Judges on the Impact of the Economic Downturn on Representation in the Courts.]
  • 7.19.10 – National Law Journal [Opinion Piece] –  law firm pro bono contributions, as measured quantitatively, have not dropped during the recession.  And many more firms have created “pro bono counsel/partner” positions in the past 10 years.  But when it comes to assessing the value of pro bono work, “a fundamental difficulty involves the dominance of ranking systems that use hourly rates as the sole measure of performance.”  Many pro bono stakeholders are concerned that a “preoccupation with quantity [diverts] attention from quality and social impact.”  To better measure the effectiveness of pro bono programs, one option is to expand assessment criteria to include more qualitative measures, such as how firms evaluate and prioritize pro bono projects in light of community needs, and how pro bono culture is rooted inside firms.  Link to piece.      
  • 7.19.10 – a former program manager at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid has been sentenced to 4.5 years in prison for defrauding the legal services provider out of nearly $135,000 between 2003 and 2006.  Link to article.
  • 7.17.10 – Baltimore Sun – 13 University of Maryland School of Law students joined four law professors last spring as the school opened clinics in Mexico (migrant labor issues), China (micro-entrepreneurship/small-business issues), and Namibia (water and reproductive rights issues), carrying forward the mission of the school’s clinical program to give students a diverse array experiential-learning opportunities and to offer help to poor client populations.  Link to article.
  • 7.17.10 – The Record (New Jersey) – Legal Services of New Jersey is facing a 33% cut in state funding that will result in layoffs of 100 staff members.  LSNJ, a statewide program composed of 6 regional programs, “has dropped from 720 staffers at its peak in 2007 to around 590 now…[and]…by the end of 2010 it will have fewer than 500,” according to LSNJ’s president.  The cuts in staff – which is 60% attorneys – will greatly reduce the number of cases that LSNJ, which already routinely turns prospective clients away, can handle on behalf of low-income Garden State residents.  Link to article.
  • 7.16.10 – The Detroit News – “The Michigan Supreme Court reversed itself today and threw out a lawsuit that was aimed at holding the state responsible for failure to provide adequate funding to hire lawyers for poor people accused of crimes.  The state’s high court in April upheld earlier favorable lower court decisions for the lawsuit brought by eight men and women…against the state and Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Intended to become a class-action lawsuit that would include all people convicted of crimes in Michigan while represented by court-appointed counsel, the case appeared headed for trial in Ingham County Circuit Court until today’s abrupt reversal.”  Link to article.

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