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Blue-ribbon panel starts work on legal help for the poor

ore of Florida’s poor and working poor get legal help they need may include business leaders and law schools, according to the head of the Texas Supreme Court.

Chief Justice Nathan Hecht spoke with reporters before Friday’s first meeting of a blue-ribbon panel looking into how to expand civil legal assistance in the Sunshine State.

“We don’t want our friends in Florida to reinvent the wheel,” said Hecht, invited by Florida Chief Justice Jorge Labarga. “We’ve got good ideas we want to share.”

Florida law schools already offer what are known as “clinics,” in which second- and third-year students work on client cases under the supervision of professors.

They supplement overworked and underfunded legal aid groups that represent clients, usually for free.

But such clinics don’t come cheap. Florida State University’s Public Interest Law Center has been funded with a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, according to its website.

The solution comes down to one thing: Finding steady sources of money to pay lawyers and other staff.

One answer may be public-private partnerships with major corporations or seeking large contributions from wealthy benefactors.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, for instance, gave $100 million to the Newark, N.J., public school system in 2010.

Though heavy on government officials and attorneys, the Florida panel includes executives from the Walt Disney Co. and the Publix supermarket chain.

Labarga formed the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice last year, calling the availability of legal help to needy Floridians “a societal issue.”

Criminal defendants are guaranteed legal representation even if they can’t afford it. But people who need help with civil problems, such as evictions, child custody or unpaid wages, have to find their own lawyers.

Legal assistance groups who can help are largely dependent on successful fundraising, including grants from private foundations and individual donations.

Since taking office, Gov. Rick Scott has vetoed a total of $7 million in state budget money for civil legal assistance.

“We can’t just rely on taxpayer money to fix this problem,” Labarga said. “The business community has a stake in this as well.”

The 27-member panel will offer preliminary findings in October, with a final report of recommendations ready by the middle of next year, Labarga said.

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Blue-ribbon panel starts work on legal help for the poor