Malloy Pitches Legal-Aid Lifeline

Thomas MacMIllan PhotoDeborah Diaz was sitting in the courthouse in tears, facing eviction, when legal aid lawyers came to her rescue. A new proposal by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy would help ensure people like her can still find legal help when they need it.

Malloy, who’s running for reelection, was in New Haven Friday morning to announce his new plan. He’s asking the state legislature to expand and make permanent a program that sets aside court filing fee revenue to pay for legal assistance for Connecticut residents with low incomes. That program, begun in 2012, is currently set to expire in 2015.

Malloy made his announcement at 11 a.m. at the offices of New Haven Legal Assistance on State Street. Legal aid attorneys serve people who are too poor to hire lawyers on their own. While the court system provides attorneys for indigent criminal case defendants, lawyers are not provided in almost all other legal proceedings, including divorces and housing cases.

In 2012, filing fees were increased, and 70 percent of the fees started going to pay for legal aid statewide. In addition to removing the 2015 sunset provision, Malloy’s proposed legislation would increase legal aid’s share to 95 percent. The remaining 5 percent would go towards technology improvements in the judicial branch.

The bill would amount to an extra $1.6 million for legal aid in fiscal year 2015, and $6.3 million more in fiscal year 2016. Susan Nofi (pictured), head of New Haven legal aid, said the bill would allow her to avoid laying off attorneys.

Previously, legal aid had been funded mostly through Interest On Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (IOLTA) a program the state started in 1984. When lawyers have to place client funds in escrow, the interest from those funds goes to pay for legal aid.

IOLTA had funded legal aid at about $20 million per year. Then the housing crisis hit. Interest rates plummeted and people were making fewer transactions that required escrow. In a single year, the funding plummeted to about $4 million.

Malloy (pictured) said his proposal is “part of continuum” of recent efforts to address the needs of the poor in Connecticut. The state raised the minimum wage by 45 cents in January, and recently voted to increase it to $10.10 per hour by 2017. Malloy took a swing at “Republicans in our state” who want to eliminate the Earned Income Tax Credit that is keeping people “out of poverty.”

Malloy called on the legislature to “act quickly” to approve his proposal. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Diaz took the podium to recount how she had been facing eviction when the house in which she rents an apartment was foreclosed on. She was in court, with her newborn, in tears. Legal aid attorneys Amy Marx and Amy Eppler-Epstein took on her case, and found that a bank was trying to evict her illegally. They stopped the eviction and Diaz is still living in her apartment with her kids.

“If it wasn’t for legal aid, me and my children would have been on the streets,” Diaz said.

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