Lawyers for the poor seek hike in bar dues

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Joined by a former state Supreme Court justice, attorneys for the poor are trying to raise annual Florida Bar dues by up to $100 to address what they call a fiscal crisis.

The attempt to hike the annual dues, which have not increased since 2001, from the current $265 has sparked an outcry in the legal community and created a rift over how much of the onus lawyers should bear to fund legal-services groups throughout the state.

Former Justice Raoul Cantero, Florida Legal Services Executive Director Kent Spuhler and Florida Justice Institute Executive Director Randall Berg are leading the crusade to increase the fees before the bulk of the current funding for legal aid dries up.

In accordance with Bar rules, Cantero formally notified The Bar that his group intended to file a petition with the Supreme Court proposing a change to the current rule that caps lawyers' annual dues at $265. The proposal would allow the Bar to lift the maximum dues by up to $100 and would require that the additional funds be steered to the "Legal Aid for the Poor Program" administered by The Florida Bar Foundation.

The Bar's Board of Governors unanimously voted in March to oppose the petition, which Cantero said he plans to file with the court on June 16. The foundation voted to remain neutral on the issue. As of last week, more than 375 lawyers had signed onto the "Access to Justice" petition, according to the Florida Legal Services website.

Those on both sides agree that funding for legal-services groups --- which receive money from the Florida Bar Foundation, counties and the federal government --- is in dire straits. The chief source of the foundation's funding is interest from lawyers' trust accounts. Because of historically low interest rates, that money has dropped 88 percent in recent years --- from $44 million in 2007 to $5.5 million in 2012. The foundation has supplemented funding for legal services with money from reserves, which it projects will run out by 2017. The foundation has earmarked about $15 million for legal services this year.

Money from the counties has also shriveled because of a plunge in property tax collections caused by the bursting of the state's real-estate bubble.

And, since taking office in 2011, Gov. Rick Scott has exacerbated legal services' fiscal woes by slashing money the Legislature placed in the state budget for "civil legal assistance." Scott vetoed $1 million in 2011 and $2 million in each of the following two years.

The proposal pushed by Cantero and the legal-aid lawyers would raise approximately $10 million from the nearly 100,000 lawyers in Florida.

"Allowing a $100 increase in The Florida Bar's membership fees offers immense benefit to the public with minimal inconvenience to Florida's lawyers. Lawyers have a professional obligation to assist in improving the administration of justice, and to provide legal services to those unable to pay for such services," the petition reads.

According to the petition, more than a quarter of the 410 full-time legal aid lawyer positions in Florida are in jeopardy because of the funding shortfall. In 2012, legal-aid lawyers handled 89,720 cases. More than half of the cases dealt with family issues, such as divorce or child custody, and housing cases, like foreclosure.

But Florida Bar President Eugene Pettis and other opponents of a hike in bar dues say that lawyers, who already contribute nearly 2 million hours of pro bono services each year, shouldn't take on more of the burden of a societal problem.

"I think it's just shortsighted," Pettis said of the petition during a recent telephone interview. "This is a community crisis. I think it's time we leaders bring the community together to address it."

The Bar is considering lending the foundation $6 million over the next two or three years and will vote on that proposal at its next meeting May 23, Pettis said.

But, he said, money alone won't fix what he called an outdated system of delivering legal services to the needy. Instead, Pettis is calling for a statewide summit where "stakeholders"--- including Supreme Court justices, Attorney General Pam Bondi and others --- can develop a long-term plan to ensure that all Floridians have access to the legal representation they need.

"These are all efforts to strengthen the foundation, not to get into some little fight with the petitioners," Pettis said.

But Cantero said poor Floridians can't afford to wait for a study.

"These are people that need Medicaid benefits now, that need medical attention now that they cannot afford, that are getting thrown out of their homes now, that are not getting veterans' benefits now," Cantero said. "It's hard for (those in the middle-class) to really understand people that are at this level of poverty where every penny matters and just getting $100 to pay for a prescription medication can make a difference in their lives. It's hard for us to understand that, and it's easy for us to say let's wait until next year when we get the appropriation or wait until we can get the Legislature to do it. These people cannot wait. They cannot afford to wait."

But Pettis said that Cantero's route could take just as long or longer.

"They don't know when their process is going to take effect. There is no way in the world that is a quick track," Pettis said.

In addition to the dues dispute, the handling of the petition itself appears to have caused hard feelings. Cantero, Berg and Spuhler had planned to attend the Bar's Board of Governors meeting in March where the petition had been put on the agenda.

But Cantero said the trio changed their minds after Pettis discouraged him from attending.

"He said, well you're always welcome to come if you want to come. But he led me to believe that we hadn't been invited, that we were kind of crashing the party," Cantero said.

Pettis said he never told Cantero not to attend the meeting but advised him that he would have "a few minutes to speak" and that Cantero joked that, as an appellate lawyer, he was comfortable with the short time frame.

"Why they elected not to show up, I don't know. But it was not due to me disinviting him or discouraging him or telling him not to come," Pettis said.

Pettis said he had hoped Cantero and his allies would drop the effort.

"I don't know the reasons why he brought forth the petition. But if it was to bring this to the front of everybody's agenda, he succeeded. If it was to get action now on trying to resolve the problem, he's succeeded. If you wanted to get the foundation and the Bar to work together toward some solutions, you all have succeeded. I don't know what more, and this was my conversation with him, I don't know what more you can hope for on this issue," Pettis said.

Cantero accused Bar leaders of being "intimidated by the petition because they feel like they're going to lose control of the process of setting fees."

But Pettis said that $10 million won't resolve problems delivering services not just to the poor but also to low-income Floridians who do not qualify for legal aid.

"There is no silver bullet out there," he said. "So that's why I don't understand why we're not spending our energies in corporate relationships, bringing each other together to address a long-term solution to the problem. Get off of this up to $100 a member. If everybody put money in the kitty, $10 million would be not a solution."

Pettis said Cantero proposed having the Bar agree to the petition and then discuss alternatives later.

"I said no. We're not going to sit here quietly and allow you to do this without us letting the court know what our feelings are on this process," Pettis said.

Berg helped draft the 1987 petition, backed by the foundation but opposed by the Bar, that resulted in the current funding system that requires lawyers to contribute the interest from their trust accounts.

He said the Bar needed to "show some leadership" on the issue.

"This could be a major wonderful thing that the legal profession does for the people of Florida,'' Berg said. "We give lip services to legal services for the poor but when we're asked to step forward and help in any meaningful way we oppose it. It could be a public relations disaster for the Bar in my opinion. This is a wonderful opportunity for lawyers to show the good that they do, by putting their money their mouth is."