TALLAHASSEE — Some 500 lawyers have asked the state Supreme Court to increase Florida Bar membership fees to pay for legal services for the poor.
Former Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero leads the group that filed a petition Monday that seeks to increase the fees from $265 annually to $365. The Florida Bar Foundation funds legal aid for those in need through its Interest on Trust Accounts revenue, which decreased by $38 million from 2007 to 2012. It had $44 million in 2007 and dropped to $5.58 million in 2012, attorneys say.
“At the moment, thousands of Floridians go without access to justice because they cannot afford legal services,” Cantero said. “By raising our dues by this modest amount we have the ability to change that simple truth.
“Attorneys ask me, ‘Why should it fall upon lawyers to do this?’ We’re the ones that took that oath. We’re the ones that made that promise,” he said.
The Florida Bar and president Eugene Pettis oppose the increase.
Pettis agreed with the need of additional funding and the ability to provide more services to those struggling financially. He said the extra fee from nearly 99,000 members isn’t enough to solve the problem and that other agencies besides the Florida Bar need to be involved. The Florida Bar notes that Florida is one of only three states not to provide any state funding for civil legal aid.
“When you’re looking at this kind of societal issue, it can’t be addressed by just more money,” Pettis said. “We need to do something greater than just putting money into a system. ... It’s time now for us to look at coming up with a different model.”
The Bar’s Board of Governors conceptually approved a $6 million bridge loan to the Florida Bar Foundation to help programs. Pettis also said lawyers volunteered 1.7 million hours of pro bono work in 2012-13 and contributed more than $4.8 million to legal services organizations.
Florida Legal Services executive director Kent Spuhler argued that a loan is the last thing needed in a financial crisis.
Legal Services of North Florida executive director Kristine Knab said pro bono work is valued, but not all it seems.
“There are certain cases volunteer attorneys really aren’t qualified to work on,” Knab said. “They’re not going to pick up a federally subsidized housing case and figure out how to represent somebody. It’s like having a digestive disease guy fixing your heart problem.”