ABA study finds civil legal aid still lacking

ABA study finds civil legal aid still lacking

Not only are there relatively more poor people living in Florida than in the nation overall, but there are also relatively fewer paid attorneys helping them sort out the legal troubles that affect their basic needs.

That is according to the latest annual profile of the legal profession by the American Bar Association. Its inclusion this year of details on civil legal aid attorneys is new and motivated in part by a 2022 Legal Services Corporation report that determined the poor get help with just 8% of their legal issues.

“This sheds light on their distribution nationwide and scarcity, the profound impact of their role, and the urgent need to increase their presence in many communities,” wrote ABA President Mary Smith about paid civil legal aid attorneys in the introduction to the organization’s fifth annual profile.

Florida has a poverty rate, according to the profile, of 13.1%, compared to the national poverty rate of 11.5%. And there are just 1.7 civil legal aid attorneys serving every 10,000 Floridians, compared to the national average of 2.8 civil legal aid attorneys serving every 10,000 impoverished Americans.

In some places in Florida, it’s even worse. In Ocala, a metropolitan area of almost 400,000 people, there are only three civil legal aid attorneys, earning it special attention at the top of the report.

Compared to all 50 states, Florida ranks 12th for highest poverty rate, and 37th for the highest number of civil legal aid attorneys per every 10,000 impoverished residents, according to the report. Other states in a similarly difficult positions with high numbers of poor people and low numbers of paid attorneys helping them, include Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Texas.

Part of what is going on in these states is part of a larger trend identified by the ABA: most civil legal aid attorneys live in metropolitan areas and are highly concentrated in just one, New York City.

Among the more than 10,000 paid civil legal aid attorneys in America, about one-tenth or more than 1,000 live in New York City. And more than half of them work for just two clinics: Legal Services NYC, with 360 paid civil legal aid attorneys; and the Legal Aid Society, with 250 paid civil legal aid attorneys.

The clustered distribution of attorneys across the country is likely due to three reasons: low pay compared to other legal professions, few lawyers of any kind in rural areas, and uneven funding.

The median salary for an experienced civil legal aid attorney is $78,500 on average, and likely even less in small towns, compared to the average legal salary of $163,770 in 2022 for all practices.

Funding for civil legal aid primarily comes from the Legal Services Corporation, which has requested $1.6 billion from Congress for 2024, up from the current $560 million allocation, a reflection of the enormous need. It distributes that money to state organizations in proportion to poverty populations.

But the Legal Services Corporation is unlikely to get its ask. Congress approved its current funding through February 2, 2024. But instead of increasing the entity’s funding after that, the U.S. House has instead pushed to lower its funding to $489 million for 2024. In that case, an estimated 12,437 fewer Floridians could have access to an attorney for their basic needs, per the Legal Services Corporation.

Originally published at https://www.floridabar.org/the-florida-bar-news/aba-study-finds-civil-legal-aid-still-lacking/

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