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Fla. commission formed to help find legal service solutions

Availability of low-cost, free legal services for poor, middle class scarce

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The availability of low-cost or free legal services for the poor and middle class has never been as scarce as it is in Florida today.

The state's chief justice has formed a commission to come up with solutions, but those in the trenches worry the answers won't come soon enough.

A case pending before the Florida Supreme Court would allow lawyers' bar dues to climb by $100 a year to plug the legal services funding hole.

The bar said the problem belongs to all of society and needs a broader solution.

Mary Lewis bought a modest home in 2009 so she could be near her now-98-year-old mother. Then Lewis was hospitalized, couldn't pay her mortgage and the bank started foreclosing.

"I was trying to handle it myself," Lewis said.

Lewis got nowhere with the bank until she turned to legal services.

"I was able to save my house, even got the payments down a lot lower so that I could handle it," Lewis said.

But thousands of other families aren't so lucky. Funding for legal aid lawyers has dried up. The funding is tied to interest rates -- low rates mean fewer dollars.

"Totally, we've lost over 67 percent of our funding. This last cut was over 40 percent and we lost half of our staff," said Florida Legal Services Director Kent Spuhler.

The chief justice of the state Supreme Court has named a 27-member commission to find solutions. It meets again Friday.

The court's first report isn't due until October, with a final report not due until next summer.

"The system doesn't have two years. I mean, it's going to get close to being barely there," Spuhler said.

Meanwhile, Lewis is happy to still have her home.

"Nobody should have to go through what I went through to try to save their home," Lewis said.

But thousands like Lewis are already finding legal help harder to find, with no solution in sight.