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Pennsylvania Lawyers Rally to Support Civil Legal Aid, Ask Lawmakers to Approve $1 Million in Additional State Funds and Loan Forgiveness for Civil Legal Aid Lawyers

HARRISBURG (May 5, 2008) - Pennsylvania lawyers are calling on state lawmakers today to approve an increase in civil legal aid that provides legal services to low-income families and children. They also are calling for passage of legislation that will help pay student loans of lawyers who work for civil legal aid programs.

"Too many Pennsylvania families and children are going without legal information, advice and representation during critical events in their lives," said Andrew F. Susko, president, Pennsylvania Bar Association, during a rally of lawyers in the state Capitol Rotunda.

"Every year, nearly one million Pennsylvanians victimized by domestic violence, mired in custody disputes, denied health care and faced with mortgage foreclosure receive some form of legal aid. Thousands more receive free legal services from Pennsylvania's lawyers. Yet, many unmet needs remain and too many of our fellow Pennsylvanians are denied access to justice because there simply isn't enough help available," Susko said.

The Pennsylvania Bar Association is asking lawmakers to support a $1 million increase in state funding for civil legal aid programs. The increase, which would bring state funding for civil legal aid to $3.6 million, is currently included in Gov. Ed Rendell's 2008-09 budget proposal.

Total annual funding for Pennsylvania's civil legal aid programs amounts to approximately $70 million. The figure includes funds from the federal Legal Services Corporation, the state Supreme Court through its Interest on Lawyers Trust Account Board, the state government and a host of other sources, including foundations, United Ways, local governments, private lawyers, bar associations and law schools.

Speaking at today's rally in support of additional funding was Dorchina Davala Urrutia of Dauphin County. Two years ago, Urrutia and her husband found themselves in need of civil legal aid. They needed to gain guardianship of her husband's newborn niece because the baby's mother was leading an unhealthy lifestyle.

"My husband and I needed legal papers so that we could give the baby the care she needed and so that we could get the baby the medical services and even the shots she needed," said Urrutia. "MidPenn Legal Services was able to give us legal help and, thankfully, our niece is now doing very well today."

For more than 30 years, total funding for civil legal aid programs has drifted below inflation-adjusted levels and the eligible population (generally, qualifying families must fall under 125 percent of the federal poverty level) has increased by 20 percent.

Twenty years ago, funding supported 358 lawyers employed by the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network (PLAN), a statewide organization that provides leadership, funding and support to improve the availability and quality of civil legal aid for the low income and for victims of domestic violence. Today's funding supports 264 lawyers, representing a 26 percent decrease in staffing.

"Right now, studies show we have to turn away half of the eligible people who contact us for help," said Samuel W. Milkes, PLAN's executive director. "Additional funds will help us meet the urgent needs of Pennsylvanians who are involved in the legal system in areas such as mortgage foreclosure, child custody and domestic violence."

Milkes says civil legal aid organizations also face challenges in hiring lawyers at wages significantly below market wages. Starting salaries for lawyers employed by PLAN are about $35,000 per year. With school debt often reaching $100,000, many graduates can't even consider a career in public service without some help.

"Public service lawyers are on a personal mission to help those in need," said Milkes. "Unfortunately, these dedicated professionals face the reality that they can't make a decent living while paying off their large student loans. The financial burden is too great."

Two bills, one in the state House and the other in the Senate, would create a public service lawyers' loan repayment assistance program.

Speaking during the rally in favor of such a program were Susko, Milkes, Sen. Andrew E. Dinniman (Chester and Montgomery counties), Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf (Bucks and Montgomery counties) and Rep. Kathy M. Manderino (Montgomery and Philadelphia counties).

Greenleaf is a sponsor of Senate Bill 860, and Manderino is a sponsor of House Bill 1480. Both bills would allow lawyers to apply annually for partial repayment of their student loans. To qualify, the lawyers must be employed by civil legal services organizations, state or county bar foundations providing legal services without charge to disadvantaged persons, or by state or local government organizations whose primary mission is to prosecute criminal defendants or provide legal assistance for indigent criminal defendants. The program would be funded by the state and other sources.

Founded in 1895, the Pennsylvania Bar Association strives to promote justice, professional excellence and respect for the law; improve public understanding of the legal system; facilitate access to legal services; and serve the 29,000 lawyers who are members of the association.