Legal Aid budget cuts lead to layoffs

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - An organization that helps low-income people fight their legal battles is facing layoffs and cuts. The Legal Aid Society budget has been slashed, cutting the number of people they can help.

10,000 low-come people turned to the Central Virginia Legal Aid office for help last year. And the number is rising.

"I think the poverty rate in Virginia has gone up 30% since 2008, and our funding has gone down 20%," explained Executive Director Steve Dickinson.

Legal Aid offers free legal help to people who can't afford to hire an attorney, with problems like domestic violence, foreclosure, and child support and custody.

"We will continue to focus on victims of domestic violence," said Dickinson. "But for other folks facing child custody or child support, we're not able to help them anymore."

The cuts mean Legal Aid is losing up to 20 of it's 125 attorneys statewide, plus 10 support staff. In the Central Virginia offices, it means cutting 6 positions.

"We're already stretched so thin that I can't imagine it's going to go anywhere else but down," said Dickinson.

Meantime, Capital One is partnering with legal agencies to develop a web-based program, called Justice Server, that in six months they hope will help more attorneys volunteer to take on cases.

"They can get the file directly at their desktop and hopefully serve people between their busy schedules," Dickinson told us.

$170,000 has been raised to start Justice Server, but Dickinson says that money is not designated for budget cuts.

Two bills before the General Assembly could help the budget crisis. One would increase a civil court filing fee from $9 to $13, which would go to Legal Aid. The other would require interest on money held for clients in trust accounts that usually goes to the banks, to go to Legal Aid instead. Currently, donation of the interest is optional.

And Dickinson is crossing his fingers that donors will step up. "We are in desperate straights, helping desperate people. So we are trying to get as much support as we can from any source."

Low-income clients can also turn to some other agencies that offer pro-bono legal help:

The Virginia Bar Association's Young Lawyer Division offers legal advice through its "Ask-A-Lawyer" program.  The VBA also assists veterans with legal services through its Veterans Initiative.  The VBA is also hosting the Chief Justice's Pro Bono Summit in April to improve the availability of pro bono services to the public.

The Virginia State Bar Association offers a series of pro bono services.

The University of Richmond, the College of William and Mary, and the University of Virginia all legal clinics to low-income clients. They are staffed by law students under the supervision of attorney professors.

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