Friday, January 5, 2007
Local Legal Aid Heads: New Congress May Increase Grants
By TINA BAY, Staff Writer
The heads of two local legal service organizations yesterday expressed optimism that the new Congress would bring a much-needed increase in federal moneys for their operations.
Neil Dudovitz, executive director of the Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County, told the MetNews he is “very hopeful” that a Democratic-led legislature will make it possible to see a funding increase that was discussed but never came about under the previous Republican leadership.
“I think that elected officials, and particularly the new Congress, clearly understands that there are significant needs of poor people, including the needs for legal assistance, that are now going unmet, and something has to happen to turn the tide and address those questions,” he said. “I feel very confident that Congress will take some steps to put us in the right direction.”
The executive director of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, Toby J. Rothschild, added that many in Washington, including the National Legal Aid and Defender Association and American Bar Association, are working to persuade the appropriations committees to adopt a five percent increase in funding for legal aid programs across the country.
“Personally, I’m hopeful but not confident that that will be successful given what I’ve read about the leadership of both houses in terms of their plans for 2007,” he remarked. “I have high hopes that in funding for 2008 we will be able to see an increase, based on the fact that even the old Congress had approved an increase, and the new Congress should be more friendly to a program like ours.”
The two leaders spoke on the first day of the new Congress, and the day after the Legal Services Corporation released its official list of grants for 2007.
Rothschild said federal funding makes up about half of his organization’s budget and that this year’s $7.3 million award from Congress through the LSC is “unfortunately” the same as it was last year. The LSC is a non-profit entity, established by Congress in 1974 and funded through congressional appropriation, that issues annualized grants to organizations nationwide that provide civil legal assistance to those who otherwise would be unable to afford it.
Dudovitz noted that NLS-LA’s $4.3 million LSC grant this year remains at the same level as its 2005 and 2006 awards, and comprises about 45 percent out of a $10.2 million budget. With that money, he said, his organization can “barely continue” its programs to the poor in the face of rising costs and an increasing demand for services.
Although NLS-LA and LAFLA—the only LSC grantees in Los Angeles County— receive funding from other sources, including city, county and state grants, Dudovitz and Rothschild said, the LSC grant makes up the core of their operations, and its shortage has a deep impact.
Financial strain has affected their organizations’ ability to attract high quality personnel, they pointed out, because while many attorneys have a genuine desire to work in legal aid, they often choose other jobs in order to repay the student loan debt they carry with them out of law school.
Dudovitz said limited funding this year has forced NLS-LA to choose not to fill all of its numerous open attorney positions, thus creating a personnel shortage. Rothschild noted that while LAFLA has been able to hold its staff levels steady through special grants from other sources, it certainly lacks the money to hire as many people as it really needs.
Both executive directors say that in addition to greater LSC grants, they hope that the state and federal legislatures will approve the provision of loan reimbursement assistance to new law school graduates who want to work in legal aid.
The Legal Services Corporation’s 2007 grants total nearly $303.8 million, with the greatest number of recipients in California.
LAFLA has six offices and several courthouse clinics in Los Angeles, Long Beach and Santa Monica.
NLS-LA has offices in Glendale, El Monte and Pacoima, and self-help centers in the Antelope Valley, Pomona, Van Nuys, Long Beach, Inglewood, Santa Monica and San Fernando.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company