The $100 Per Attorney Licensing Fee Should Be Approved
Why lawyers? Why do we need to give $100 per year to provide legal help to low-income Iowans? Perhaps why the Iowa Supreme Court has asked for comments on this fee is that we, as lawyers, have a special responsibility for the quality of justice. Our rules of professional conduct urge us to do so. Unrepresented parties negatively impact the quality of justice, not just for themselves, but for others involved in the judicial system. This contribution to support access to justice will improve the system for lawyers, our clients and for all Iowans.
Iowa Legal Aid and the Volunteer Lawyers Projects in Iowa provide critical legal assistance to low-income Iowans that ensures they are treated fairly. Iowa Legal Aid and the volunteer lawyers to whom it refers cases handled 18,127 cases in 2013 that helped over 43,191 people, 18,580 of whom were children. Despite the number of people who were helped, 13,500 other people were turned away or provided fewer services than they needed. Those people, who had nowhere else to turn, did not get help with domestic abuse protection orders, divorces, illegal evictions, foreclosures, consumer frauds and the improper denial of Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, SSI and unemployment benefits. They often lost their safety, their homes, their children and the basic necessities of life, all because they could not get the legal assistance they needed to protect their rights and understand their responsibilities.
The lack of resources for civil legal aid is the result of inadequate government funding. Federal funding for legal aid is less now than it was in 1981 in real dollars. Adjusted for inflation, Iowa Legal Aid would be receiving $6,907,912 in federal funding if it were receiving the same federal support that it received in 1981. Instead, its federal funding for 2014 is only $2,454,108, which is $250,138 less than it was in 2010. Meanwhile, IOLTA funding for Iowa Legal Aid and HELP Legal Assistance in Davenport has decreased by 83% in the last five years, from $935,195 in 2010 to $163,290 in the current year.
The state of Iowa has increased funding for legal aid during the last two years, providing needed and significant assistance. The lack of sufficient funding, however, has resulted in a reduction in Iowa Legal Aid’s staff to the extent that the number of cases handled by Iowa Legal Aid and the volunteer lawyers decreased by 32% between 2010 and 2013. Current estimates indicate that it would cost at least $2,700,000 in additional funding to return Iowa Legal Aid’s staff and services to 2010 levels.
But why lawyers? Why do we need to pay $100? Along with the courts, we are the guardians of justice in this state. We have an obligation to support justice and to make sure that the system works for everyone. Our ethics code says we should provide pro bono services and should financially support legal aid organizations. This commitment is exemplified by the comment on the Iowa State Bar Association website that one of the reasons for its high membership rate is that Iowa lawyers are committed to justice and dedicated to their profession. As the staff of the Iowa Supreme Court noted in its report, however, only a small percentage of Iowa lawyers provide pro bono services. The number of lawyers who accept pro bono case referrals is not increasing. In adding this fee, Iowa would join four neighboring states that already have a similar fee.
Lawyers’ contributions to improving access to justice are critical. Without lawyers, people are not able to protect their rights in court. Without lawyers, pro se litigants make the court system less efficient and effective for lawyers and their clients.
The proposed fee (which has some exemptions, including newly licensed lawyers) will not provide all of the additional resources that are needed to provide access to justice to low-income Iowans, but it will show other Iowans, and other sources of funding for legal aid and the Volunteer Lawyers Projects, that Iowa’s lawyers are committed to access to justice for low-income Iowans. Paying $100 to support legal aid for our low-income neighbors is surely the minimum that we can do to improve access to justice. If we do not support access to justice, who will?