TALLAHASSEE — A half-century ago, a Florida case led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that criminal defendants in state courts should get legal representation even if they can’t afford it.
But even today, there’s no guarantee the poor in Florida can get legal help in civil matters — like getting a will, fighting an eviction or dealing with debt collectors.
State lawmakers passed a law in 2002 to “enhance the availability of civil legal assistance to the poor.”
But for the past four years, Gov. Rick Scott has decided against funding it — bringing to $7 million the total amount in legal aid he has cut from state appropriations.
Florida is one of three states, along with Idaho and Wisconsin, where civil legal aid receives no state legislative or court funding, according to the American Bar Association.
Legal assistance outfits across the state have to look elsewhere for resources to help more clients.
In Tampa, Bay Area Legal Services has become good at this.
The organization took in $7.8 million in 2012 and closed more than 12,000 cases, records show. But in a field where success is measured in helping people one by one, every little bit helps, said Dick Woltmann, the organization’s president.
Woltmann would have used the latest $150,000 state appropriation to hire two staff attorneys to handle about 300 cases each.
“When you don’t have the money, you can’t provide the services,” he said. “And there’s always more need than resources.”
Bay Area Legal Services, headquartered in Ybor City, took 59,996 calls for legal assistance in 2013, Woltmann said.
Lawyers have a duty to work a certain number of pro bono cases, representing the poor for free. Legal aid societies first sprang up over a century ago, many depending on a mix of voluntarism and private benefactors.
For decades, though, advocates for the poor also have argued for a publicly funded system to ensure even more people can be helped in civil court.
Taking its name from the Supreme Court’s 1963 Gideon v. Wainwright decision, the “civil Gideon” movement seeks to guarantee that “justice for all” really happens.
Just as the Gideon case led to public defenders for criminal defendants, proponents say public dollars should fund access to lawyers for low-income people in civil cases.
Critics, though, have said a right to a criminal defense is grounded in the Constitution but there’s no such basis for a right to representation in civil proceedings.
Nonetheless, when asked to explain the latest veto, Scott spokesman John Tupps said the Attorney General’s Office has made $15 million available from 2013 to 2015 for legal aid services across Florida.
But Whitney Ray, press secretary for Attorney General Pam Bondi, said that funding came out of Florida’s portion of the National Mortgage Settlement and went to foreclosure-related cases only.
Civil legal aid now is largely dependent on successful fundraising, including grants and contracts from governments and foundations, even small donations from individuals.
Some help nationally comes through the federal government, such as the Legal Services Corporation created by Congress. The amount available varies widely year to year.
It falls to the Florida Bar Foundation to fund the groups doing free legal work in the state. Its major source of income has been interest on the state’s lawyer trust accounts.
Attorneys have to hold money “in trust” for clients. They deposit payments, some from settlements, into bank accounts that generate interest.
In Florida, the interest money is pooled and divvied up for legal aid, law student assistance and other law-related programs.
But the pool, and many like it around the country, dried up as interest rates dropped after the financial crisis of 2008-09.
“We’re deeply disappointed the governor chose to veto this appropriation for civil legal assistance,” Florida Bar Foundation President John Patterson said in a statement.
“These services stabilize lives, provide independence and self-sufficiency, secure protection from abuse, and give meaning to our pledge of justice for all,” Patterson said.
The state money budgeted for next year would have “absolutely made a difference for us,” said John Dubrule, interim executive director of Gulfcoast Legal Services, a nonprofit legal aid firm based in St. Petersburg.
The firm employs Jose Godinez-Samperio as a paralegal. He’s the Florida State law graduate denied a law license because his parents brought him as a child from Mexico and he stayed here illegally.
Lawmakers this year passed a bill to make him eligible to practice law, and Scott signed it into law last month.
Gulfcoast Legal was slated to get $80,000 out of the money Scott vetoed for next year.
As an example of their work, Dubrule mentioned a recent case of an Iraq War veteran who was homeless and had been sexually abused. Lawyers there were able to get him a Social Security disability income.
“These are life-altering experiences for these individuals,” Dubrule said. “But the funding for that kind of case keeps slipping away.”