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Legal Aid says cuts make layoffs ‘inevitable’

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal spending cuts will likely force the overburdened Legal Aid of West Virginia to lay off several lawyers in order to compensate for its annual budget woes, officials confirmed Tuesday.

On Nov. 14, Congress passed the emergency "minibus" spending bill that cut deeply into several areas of the federal government, including agriculture, commerce, justice and science. The measure has so far promised to saddle Legal Aid with a nearly $500,000 budget reduction in 2012.

The program's projected budget for 2012 stands at about $2.8 million.

"Unless some new money drops in our lap, I think we're inevitably going to be reducing our staff," Legal Aid Executive Director Adrienne Worthy said Tuesday.

Legal Aid provides lawyers for low-income citizens who cannot afford to hire private attorneys. The lawyers generally represent clients in domestic, landlord dispute, bankruptcy and government-benefit cases.

Worthy said Legal Aid executives have not yet determined which portions of the program will receive the heaviest layoffs.

"We're still looking at how we're going to take that hit," she said. "We do a lot of domestic violence work on what we get from the feds. Our big concern is what about everything else that we do?"

The budget cuts add a new challenge to a statewide initiative aimed at eliminating barriers that prevent the poor, disabled, illiterate and inexperienced from receiving proper representation in the state's legal system.

The Access to Justice Commission, headed by West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin, concluded the last of six forums just a day after Congress passed the November minibus bill.

Several commission members noted at the final forum that the state, mostly through Legal Aid, has taken strides since the beginning of the decade to provide more litigation services to those in need.

That's despite the staffing issues that already plague the program. Legal Aid has just 40 lawyers to handle cases in the state's 55 counties, according to Legal Aid's website, and demand for more lawyers is not getting any lighter.

In 2010 alone, demand for Legal Aid services increased 20 percent from the previous year, said Legal Aid director of development Jennifer Jordan.

"We were already turning people away because of inadequate resources," Jordan said.

Nearly half of Legal Aid's funding is appropriated by the federal government. With the November bill, the 2012 national budget for state-funded legal services will stand at $348 million -- down from $404 million in 2011 and $420 million in 2010.

Congress appropriates the money to the Legal Services Corp., which doles out the funding to each of the 50 states. This year's cuts were widely believed to have been necessary to prevent a government shutdown.

Bob Bastress, a law professor at West Virginia University and member of the Access to Justice Commission, said that the state lawmakers have made strides in helping Legal Aid's budget woes, including passing a measure last year that imposed a circuit court filing fee that went to support the program.

But with federal funding waning every year, lawmakers should be open to the idea of increasing funding for legal services on the state level, Bastress said.

"We're nowhere near what neighboring states invest in [legal services] for the poor," he said. "Legal Aid desperately needs money."

Deborah Bogan, director of the Access to Justice Commission, said its members are still in the beginning stages of identifying the needs of the state's justice system. Once identified, the panel members will begin drawing up plans on how to fix those problems.

"What the commission has been charged with is to find other ways to meet those needs, so that the burden doesn't lie solely upon Legal Aid," she said.

Reach Zac Taylor at Zachary.Taylor@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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