Legal aid programs state-wide are experiencing a crisis because of significant cuts in IOTA, state, local and private foundation funding. The situation has been exacerbated by the tough economy, which brought a bigger demand for services as more people face poverty, foreclosure, unemployment and other serious legal problems.
Attorneys around the state have begun receiving communication from the Florida Bar confirming the consequences of the massive cuts to legal aid funding.
Locally, the repercussions of the crisis will prove devastating to the stability of Dade Legal Aid and its Put Something Back pro bono program.
In practice for more than 60 years, Dade Legal Aid is a non-profit law firm with two components: In-house legal services and the Put Something Back pro bono program.The 21 staff attorneys specialize in family law, domestic violence, guardianship, child advocacy, housing, bankruptcy and foreclosure, with priority given to the protection of children, victims of domestic violence and the most vulnerable in the community. Through its award-winning Put Something Back program, Dade Legal Aid matches volunteer attorneys with clients in need of civil legal services.
“The demand for legal services has never been greater due to the continuing economic challenges here in Miami-Dade County,” said executive director Sharon Langer. “Unfortunately, at the same time that the number of people seeking our assistance has greatly increased, funding sources for legal services has been cut drastically.”
In an attempt to fill the deficit, the Legal Leaders Fundraising Campaign was launched in January at a cocktail reception hosted by the firm Kozyak, Tropin & Throckmorton. Spearheaded by John Kozyak, Robert Josefsberg and Roberto Martinez, the Legal Leaders advisory committee consists of more than 85 Miami attorneys from diverse law firms and government agencies. They serve as ambassadors with the goal of raising awareness and funds to enable Dade Legal Aid to continue its mission of providing free legal services to qualifying low income residents of Miami- Dade County. The campaign has structured itself around the suggested $350 minimum contribution that the Florida Supreme Court set over 20 years ago. To date, the Legal Leaders have raised almost $45,000, with a goal of $150,000 for the year.
“I think we needed it yesterday,” Kozyak said, “and we’re going to need the money next year too.”
The agency faces a loss of more than $500,000 over the next three years, which will translate to staff cuts and reduced services to the community. This will not only dismantle the safety net for thousands of needy families who may have nowhere else to turn, but also inundate the courts and be a detriment to the efficiency of the already overburdened system.
“We appreciate the efforts of the dedicated lawyers on the Legal Leaders advisory committee for supporting our mission,” said Langer. “We need the support of the entire legal community to ensure that access to justice is a reality for all.”
For more information, call development director Lori Markowitz Gerson at 305- 579-5733, ext. 2241, or email Lgerson@dadelegalaid.org. To donate now, go to <www.dadelegalaid.org>.