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Solutions being discussed after funding for legal aid services drops

Florida 1 of 3 states that do not budget some dollars for legal aid

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Legal aid services in Florida have never provided help to more than 20 percent of those in need, but since the recession, funding has dropped by 20 percent. Solutions being discussed include a web portal and requiring third-year law school students to do more.

Ten million Floridians qualify for free legal aid, but there are only 408 legal aid lawyers statewide.

"That’s about one lawyer for 8,000 clients. You can't do that," said Donny MacKenzie, of Holland and Knight and the Florida Bar Foundation.

For the last year, a commission has been looking for solutions. The commission was created by the chief justice who, as a trial judge, saw too many people who didn't have a lawyer or a clue in his courtroom.

"It costs money in Florida to file for divorce. It's a big fee here. I think it's over $400," said Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, of the Supreme Court of Florida. "You and I can write a check for $400, but a lot of people can't, so they just stay married when they don't want to be married."

A study by the Florida Bar Foundation found that every dollar invested in legal aid provides $7 in benefits.

"When a victim of domestic violence gets the help she needs to move on, those around her get the benefit," MacKenzie said.

A pilot program in Clay County asks questions and provides answers and help with needed forms online in two areas -- landlord tenant and divorce.

"So this is the digital doorway to the courthouse, tying together online support have in place, tying together clinics and self-help centers that the legal aids manage throughout the state," Jacksonville Area Legal Aid CEO Jim Kowalski said.

One idea gaining steam is to have third-year law students do a lot less classroom work and a whole lot more legal aid.

The bar and the court are not asking for cash from the state yet, but for starters, they are asking corporations and practicing lawyers to do more.

The Clay County study is also piloting what is being called "Low Bono." It's not free help, but lawyers charge just $1 a minute. Florida is one of three states that do not budget some dollars for legal aid.