NEW HAVEN—Debbie Diaz was in tears in a New Haven courthouse when she learned she was being evicted because the apartment she rented was being foreclosed on by the bank.
That’s when she learned about New Haven Legal Assistance. She said they sent an attorney to meet her at the courthouse that same day and saved her and her children from being illegally evicted.
“They actually helped me. They saved me and my kids,” Diaz said Friday. “… If it wasn’t for legal aid me and my five children would be on the street.”
Diaz’s story is all too familiar to the attorneys who work for legal aid organizations in the state.
But Friday’s press conference on the second floor of the New Haven Legal Assistance building wasn’t about the people the organization has helped over the years, it was about its continued ability to help people like Debbie Diaz.
In 2008 when the market took a hit, so did the Interest On Lawyer Trust Accounts.
“Money in IOLTA accounts plummeted and then interest rates fell to historical lows,” Peter Arakas, president of the Connecticut Bar Foundation, said. “So we went from having $20 million in revenue in 2008 to this year we’ll be coming in at less than $3 million.”
A drop of almost 90 percent would kill almost any organization, “but fortunately we live in a state that care about people and cares about providing access to justice for people,” Arakas said.
In 2012, the legislature increasing court filing fees and allocated 70 percent to help fund legal services for the poor. That law came with a sunset provision. It was set to expire in 2015.
Arakas said legal service organizations would have had to layoff employees this year in order to plan for the sunset of the higher fee structure.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy introduced legislation earlier this year that would increase the amount of filing fees that fund legal aid services and keep the current fee structure.
The legislation will result in an additional $1.6 million increase in funding in 2015 and a $6.3 million increase in 2016. That won’t bring the fund up to where it was at $20 million in 2008 when the markets crashed and interest rates dropped, but Malloy said he believes it’s sustainable.
“Anytime a person who should otherwise be represented in court is not represented justice is failing to be done,” Malloy said.
Susan Nofi, executive director of New Haven Legal Assistance, said every day our phone lines and waiting room are filled with people who need legal help and every day they have to turn people away every day.
“We feel very fortunate Gov. Malloy recognizes how important legal aid is,” Nofi said. “We’re very pleased about this initiative.”
Aaron Bayer, a partner with Wiggin and Dana and chair of the board of Connecticut Legal Services, said the court system is set up in such a way that it can be “perilous” for someone who isn’t represented by a lawyer.
“Legal aid helps people to help themselves and helps people stay out of that safety net,” Bayer said.
He said making sure someone isn’t evicted or gets them the benefits or wages they are entitled to costs far less money than allowing that person to end up in a homeless shelter.
Malloy said making sure these organizations received adequate funding is part of a continuum of policies to help the poor in the state. From the Earned Income Tax Credit, which he implemented in 2011, to a boost in the minimum wage that he signed into law last month, Malloy said this is just one more way of helping out low-income individuals.
Malloy said he’s asked the legislature to eliminate the sunset provision in the law and increase the portion legal assistance organizations receive through the fund.
He said the expectation when the increased fees went into effect in 2012 was that the Great Recession would be over and things would have returned “to what was perceived as normal.”
“That hasn’t happened and no one knows what the new normal is yet,” he added. “So we have needed in one case to response, and in this case re-respond to that situation.”
The bill was sent by the Senate to the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee on Thursday.
Malloy expressed confidence it will come up for a vote in both chambers before the General Assembly adjourns on May 7.