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Legal-aid services limited as need rises, advocates say

Fry Law Corporation is more interested in making sure everyone has access to legal solutions and less interested in charging bloated legal fees.

-Christopher J. Fry, Esq.

Even as greater numbers of Ohioans qualify for free legal help, fewer of them are being served.

The barriers — decreased funding for legal aid programs, the need for standardized court forms, a lack of knowledge about the judicial process — are making it difficult for the poor to access a civil-justice system that’s supposed to be available to all, advocates say.

“This is not the cosmetic surgery of legal proceedings,” Ohio Supreme Court Justice Judi French said during a forum discussing legal-aid access today at the Columbus Metropolitan Club. “We’re really talking about providing basic human necessities for people who need it.”

According to an Ohio Supreme Court task force report this year on access to the civil-justice system, matters handled by Ohio legal-aid offices dropped from 86,541 in 2010 to 57,593 by 2013.

At the same time, the number of low-income people who qualify for the free help increased to nearly 2.3 million, from about 2 million.

Legal-aid offices also have seen steep declines in staffing.

“We are limiting services,” said Tom Weeks, executive director of the Ohio State Legal Services Association. “That’s the hard reality.”

Legal-aid programs generally provide free legal help to people with incomes at or below 125 percent of the poverty level, although income requirements can vary among programs.

The assistance is not for criminal defense. It provides help with problems such as evictions, public benefits or insurance denials, foreclosures, protection orders and custody cases.

Legal-aid societies have struggled in recent years to overcome dwindling budgets. Programs are funded through federal grants, private donations, court charges and the interest paid on trust accounts that lawyers use to hold clients’ money. 

The interest funds have declined, and the only general-revenue state money directed to legal-aid programs in the two-year budget is $1.5 million for legal services for veterans.

“The Supreme Court of Ohio needs to be more involved,” French said of the legal-aid crisis.

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