- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 27, 2009

MINNEAPOLIS | Timothy Cook needed help fast. His home was on the brink of foreclosure, and the six relatives and friends who lived with him were at risk of being put on the street during the coldest weather in years.

Mr. Cook was desperate to find a lawyer who could buy him some time. Because he had no job, he turned to a free legal-assistance center.

“Hopefully, maybe, God willing, I’ll find an attorney who will do this pro bono for me,” he said after getting some quick advice from the center at the county courthouse.

But that kind of help may not be available much longer. Public defenders and legal-aid programs are facing their deepest budget cuts in years just as the recession creates more demand for their services.

“The courts may be facing a ‘perfect storm’ of funding shortfalls,” according to a report from the National Center for State Courts.

All but a handful of states are dealing with budget deficits, and court systems across the nation are on the chopping block:

* In Florida, courts lost 10 percent of their funding at a time when foreclosures were exploding, and another funding cut is on the way. The public defender in Miami-Dade County wants to stop accepting thousands of lesser felonies and send the cases to a new state agency, but that proposal remains tied up in appeals.

* New Hampshire courts are halting jury trials for a month to save on daily payments to jurors.

* In Georgia, a man facing the death penalty went eight months without a lawyer because the state public defenders’ agency couldn’t pay for one.

In the last recession in 2001, most states raised court fees and fines to deal with budget woes. But now there’s much less room to do so.

During that downturn, courts persuaded legislatures that they were “a little bit different,” said Daniel Hall, vice president of the state courts center. He’s less optimistic this time.

Courts have few options for cutting their workloads. Defendants must be given speedy trials and court-appointed lawyers if they cannot afford their own.

The courts also have to accept foreclosure, eviction and divorce cases, all of which tend to happen more often when the economy falters.

Close to 90 percent of court budgets go to pay workers. And since states generally can’t cut the number of judges or their pay, that means support staff is often reduced, leaving fewer people to process paperwork.

John Stuart, Minnesota’s chief public defender, said a slump makes more people eligible for court-appointed lawyers.

“Public defenders’ work comes whether they have money or not to do it,” said David Carroll, director of research and evaluation for Defender Legal Services, an arm of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association.

In Michigan, public defenders are funded by counties, which depend on property taxes, and the latter are falling owing to the weak economy.

Public defenders in Kentucky, Tennessee and Florida are burdened with enormous caseloads — 400 felonies a year or more, even though national standards call for no more than 150.

“You’re dealing with a public defender who has absolutely no time to work on your case,” Mr. Carroll said. He said that leads to innocent defendants taking plea deals because the lesser sentence seems like a better bet. Meanwhile, “the real perpetrator of the crime is left to roam the streets and cause havoc.”

Underfunding is also a chronic problem for legal-aid programs, which represent people in civil matters such as foreclosures and evictions. Many of those organizations are considering laying off staff just as more people are turning to them.

“We don’t see the end in sight,” said Helaine Barnett, president of the Legal Services Corp., the country’s largest provider of funds for civil legal aid, which supports 137 programs nationwide.

A major source of money for such programs is interest that legal firms earn on trust accounts that temporarily hold money from client transactions, such as real estate deals.

But in some states, that revenue has dried up because of the real estate bust.

Miss Barnett’s group is waiting to see whether Congress will approve an 11 percent funding increase to $390 million. But she said legal-aid programs would need a doubling of federal, nonfederal and private funding to address all the unmet needs.

At the Hennepin County courthouse in Minneapolis, Mr. Cook said he already had been turned away by one local legal-aid program because people there doubted he could afford to keep his father’s house anyway. That’s why he turned to the court’s “self-help” center to try again to save the home.

Mr. Cook, 44, said his father had been victimized by a home-equity loan scam and failed to keep up on payments owing to a long illness. The workers at the center advised him to contact a volunteer lawyers network, the state attorney general’s office and class-action lawyers suing the original lender.

Ultimately, none of that worked. Mr. Cook said he still could not get a lawyer in time and reluctantly gave up. He moved into a friend’s home. Everyone else in his foreclosed house had to find new homes, too.

“If I could have gotten an attorney, they would have known what to do,” he said.

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