Foundations provide reprieve for laid-off legal-aid lobbyists

Raphael L. Podolsky testifying at the legislature.

CT-N

Raphael L. Podolsky testifying at the legislature.

Grants from the Melville Charitable Trust and two anonymous family foundations will help give Connecticut’s poor at least one more legislative session represented by lobbyists for the state’s cash-strapped legal-aid groups.

The positions of Raphael L. Podolsky, a Yale-educated lawyer who has lobbied 40 years, and Jane McNichol and Sara Parker McKernan are funded through June, but the long-term financial prospects of legal-aid remain precarious.

“It gives us a chance to figure out what happens next,” said Steven D. Eppler-Epstein, executive director of Connecticut Legal Services. “We’re still facing very serious financial challenges, and we’re working hard to address our funding situation.”

Without a new source of cash, layoffs of legal-aid lobbyists and other staff will be unavoidable in 2016, he said.

“I don’t have enough money to pay for the current staffing we have, even though it’s 20 percent smaller than seven or eight years ago, when we started our difficulty,” Eppler-Epstein said.

A major source of funding, a program that redirects interest on lawyers’ trust accounts to legal aid, fell by 90 percent since the 2008 recession. Worth nearly $21 million in 2007, the program now generates about $2 million a year.

Another blow was a significant dip in a newer funding source: fees on civil court filings, $125 in most cases and as high as $600 for an out-of-state lawyer to be temporarily admitted in Connecticut. In the first half of 2015, the fees totaled $5.5 million, nearly $1 million less than projected.

The Mirror reported in July that the state’s three major legal-aid groups had decided to close the Legal Assistance Resource Center of Connecticut, the agency they jointly fund for lobbying, education and community outreach on behalf of the poor.

Janice Elliott, the executive director of Melville, whose primary focus is ending homelessness, then offered to help find funding to buy some time for the lobbying program. (Melville also has funded The Mirror.)

“We talked about what we can do help legal services, give it a little bit of breathing space to have an opportunity to do some strategic planning,” Elliott said.

The closure of the resource center and decision to dismiss the lobbyists was abrupt.

“You just can’t make that change overnight,” she said.

The legal aid groups had opted for direct services over lobbying for changes in areas affecting the poor, notably lending, tenant rights and consumer issues.

“Our foundation has already been a big supporter of things that are about changing systems,” Elliott said. “We definitely see the value in both.”

The Legal Assistance Resource Center, or LARC, which employed the lobbyists and four others, will close its Hartford office. The three lobbyists will remain employees of LARC at least through June 30, based at a Connecticut Legal Services office in New Britain.

Eppler-Epstein said legal aid has commitments for $145,000 to continue the lobbying and develop a strategic plan. It hopes to raise a total of $270,000. Melville has committed to $75,000, Elliott said.

Six staff lawyers also will be trained to help on lobbying activities, but it’s unclear how much time they will have to spend at the Capitol. One of them is Giovanna Shay, the director of litigation and advocacy for Greater Hartford Legal Aid. She supervises a staff of 17 lawyers and oversees a smaller unit that focuses on education issues.

“Some tough choices may have to be made,” Shay said.

Eppler-Epstein said legal-aid lawyers, who now can help only one in every 10 potential clients, already prioritize their cases.

“The greatest need in court is representation in family cases. In those cases we prioritize domestic violence situations, where safety is at stake,” he said. “In housing and eviction matters, we prioritize cases where conditions are inadequate and illegal and where people are being improperly put out of their homes.”

Legal-aid lawyers also represent poor people who say they have been improperly denied government benefits such as health care, disability aid and SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Connecticut Legal Services, Greater Hartford Legal Aid and New Haven Legal Assistance Association have the equivalent of 79 full-time lawyers in eight field offices, serving all 169 cities and town.

A 2008 study commissioned by the Connecticut Bar Foundation found that low-income households experienced 307,000 legal problems the previous year, nearly half of which involved a housing issue.

 

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