Petition filed for higher Florida Bar fees to help poor

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A petition is being filed seeking to raise the cost of being a lawyer in Florida by $100 a year.

The money is needed to replace a declining source of money to fund services for the poor.

Clients of agencies providing free legal services are finding it harder to get help.

"We're in a crisis of access," said Kent Spuhler, of Florida Legal Services. "These are people that are facing domestic violence, veterans that are homeless."

Free legal service for the needy has been funded by interest payments on money lawyers are holding for other people. It dropped from $44 million a year to just over $5 million when interest rates plummeted.

"At the same time, the need for legal services skyrocketed because of the economy," said former Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantera.

Cantera wants lawyers to step up and wants the state's highest court to allow Bar dues to go up by up to $100.

"It's $8 a month. It's a couple lattes," Cantera said.

But the proposed hike has the legal community crying foul.

The Bar's Board of Governor's is opposing the fee hike. It said even when the money was flowing, only one in five people who needed help were getting it. The board said the problem is societal-wide.

Cantera said people are hurting.

"We need to start doing something," he said. "We can't wait until we decide whose responsibility it is."

Since the interest meltdown, there have been 30,000 fewer cases getting the help of legal aid lawyers.

"We've already lost 150," Spuhler said. "We may lose another hundred if we don't turn this crisis around."

The hike, if instituted, would raise about $10 million a year.

The Florida Bar said it is working on funding options to help legal aid, including the possibility of providing loans until interest payments recover. And even if the hike is approved, it will still be up to the Bar's Board of Governors to assess it.

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