Legal aid to needy is an uphill journey
A new commission has been appointed
to find ways of increasing civil legal services to the needy.
The daunting task of finding ways to increase civil legal services for the needy has been assigned to a new commission appointed by state Chief Justice Ronald T.Y. Moon. A shaky economy could increase the necessity for legal help for those who cannot afford a lawyer while state coffers provide a dwindling resource.
Moon named Justice Simeon Acoba to head an Access to Justice Commission to focus attention on the problem of finding ways to assure legal services to people involved in civil disputes. Commission members will include representatives from the state administration, the Legislature and legal service nonprofits.
A recent requirement by the Supreme Court that Hawaii lawyers report at year's end whether they provided free services appears to have nudged them to do so. Nearly half the lawyers reported having provided free services to the needy last year.
However, the Legislature has reduced state funding from $600,000 to $400,000 for the Volunteer Legal Services Hawaii, where calls for legal help increased from 6,000 in 2003 to 9,000 last year. Funding for Na Loio Immigrant Rights and Public Interest Center slid from $424,000 to $290,000. The commission will attempt to secure stable state funding for such agencies.
Hawaii lawyers direct small amounts of client funds into a statewide trust account separate, as required, from the lawyers' own money. Interest from the pool goes to nonprofit legal aid providers to help low-income people with civil legal problems. Income from the account last year totaled $600,000, according to the Hawaii Justice Foundation.
A recent report estimated that Hawaii has been able to serve only one of three people who contacted legal aid providers for help. The commission must find a way to improve those numbers.
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