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Oklahoma Lawyers Making Equal Justice for all a Reality

Lack of Legal Aid Funding Creates Unbalanced System

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Adrienne Watt (left), a lawyer with Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma, consults with Deni Fholer (center), a social worker, at the OU Schusterman Clinic in January. SHERRY BROWN/Tulsa World
Adrienne Watt (left), a lawyer with Legal Aid Services of
Oklahoma, consults with Deni Fholer (center), a social worker,
at the OU Schusterman Clinic in January.
SHERRY BROWN/Tulsa World

Two hundred Tulsa law firms that had not contributed to Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma in past fund drives recently received an appeal to help match a $35,000 challenge grant from the George Kaiser Family Foundation.

So far, response is underwhelming; four firms dug deep and gave a total of $1,000.

The annual public fund drive continues, led by Gov. Brad Henry and first lady Kim Henry. Those who've generously given in the past, when economic times were better, perhaps will do so again this year in spite of the Great Recession. If that happens - and if this were a typical year - LASO again would serve 20,000 clients, who could not otherwise afford a lawyer to aid them with civil legal matters. And LASO again, lamentably, would turn away another 20,000 Oklahomans because it did not have enough staff to get them past the front door. Even in good times demand far outstrips resources.

"We call it the 'justice gap,' " says LASO's Gayla Machell. "They're all the people who cannot afford an attorney's help but cannot make it to the front of the line at Legal Aid."

This, however, will not be an ordinary year. Here and nationally Legal Aid groups are witnessing crushing demand. LASO staff across the state can only hope that the number they must turn away remains at 20,000 because the figure could go far higher. Figures for the Tulsa office alone show an 18 percent increase for the first quarter over the same period in 2008. Bankruptcy requests here are up 32 percent.

The demographics of those in need are expanding rapidly and now also include the newly poor, those who've lost jobs, who face eviction, who seek government benefits or have some other legal challenge that they never would have envisioned in better days.

In terms of demand and funding, the situation is the worst it has ever been, says Machell. All over the country Legal Aid programs are hurting. Many have laid off staff. Interest from lawyer trust accounts, known as IOLTAs - which provide major funding for programs - has fallen. In Oklahoma last year, LASO received slightly less money than expected and the nonprofit is bracing for much deeper cuts.

LASO is trying to avoid staff layoffs and to keep a 77-county infrastructure in place but the funding entities upon which LASO must rely - IOLTA, Congress, the state, community groups, foundations, law firms, the United Way and individuals - "all have been hit hard by the economic turbulence."

Those who may go wanting will include children, who are the biggest benefactors of Legal Aid services. Most of LASO's cases involve stabilizing families by helping them with divorce, child custody and domestic abuse issues. The elderly also seek help in large numbers with claims for Social Security and other benefits and guardianships. LASO helps individuals faced with losing their housing through evictions or mortgage foreclosures. It helps clients with Medicare, Medicaid and other health-care problems, and the list goes on.

To qualify for LASO assistance, clients must be living at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, a group far larger today than a year ago.

That group recently included a single mother of four with numerous debts, including two judgments for medical bills. She labored under an adjustable rate mortgage that had grown to 8.9 percent interest with payments of $800 a month. Because her paycheck was garnished for the medical bills she had fallen behind in her house payments and was facing foreclosure.

A LASO attorney filed for bankruptcy on her behalf, which halted the garnishments. The attorney negotiated to modify the client's mortgage to a fixed rate of 5.8 percent, with a monthly payment of $500. The client saved hundreds of dollars per month in garnishments and mortgage costs, and could keep her home and stay off government benefits. Her story is replicated too many times to count throughout the state.

LASO must be supported at this crucial time. Otherwise more Oklahomans who cannot afford a lawyer for civil cases will be at the mercy of an unbalanced adversarial legal system.

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