Photo: Daniel Portnoy
Jason Neufeld and Marcia K. Cyphen are two attorneys who set out to make legal services more accessible.
Filling the cracks: Greater legal accessibility needed in Florida
Two attorneys set out to make legal services more accessible.
A few months ago, attorney Jason Neufeld arranged to have lunch with Marcia K. Cypen, executive director of Legal Services of Greater Miami, to talk about getting more involved with her group, which provides free legal services to poor people.
“I wanted to talk about what I could do personally, but then the conversation just sort of turned to the problem of all these people who make just a little bit too much money to qualify for free legal services but don’t make enough money to afford to hire an attorney,” says Neufeld, president of the North Dade Bar Association.“There are a lot of people like that who fall through the cracks.”
Florida Bar President Gregory Coleman, who estimates that 60% of Floridians are in that category, has fast-tracked a commission called Access to Justice, headed by Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, that will begin studying the problem in 2015.
Cypen and Neufeld came up with their idea by the end of lunch: Legal Services of Greater Miami has created a lawyer referral service for people who earn too much money to qualify for free legal services, and attorneys, including those from the North Dade Bar, are signing up to work with those clients on a reduced-fee or contingency basis.
The attorneys, who pay a $500 fee to sign up, also offer the clients a free 30-minute consultation to determine if the case should go forward.Clients don’t have any income restrictions — only that they don’t qualify for help from Legal Services of Greater Miami.
The service also covers a broader range of cases than Legal Services of Greater Miami attorneys cover. Legal Services doesn’t take cases that sue for damages, for example, but focuses instead on those involving eviction and foreclosure and helping clients navigate disputes involving food stamps, Medicaid, disability and unemployment benefits.
The referral service attorneys, however, will also handle cases including personal injury, wills and estates and bankruptcies.
The program might not be a fit for a $500-an-hour partner at a major firm, says Neufeld, “but I know there are plenty of attorneys in this economy who would be very happy to discount their rates by at least 25% and get into this knowing they’re doing a good thing and providing a community service.”
Cypen says Legal Services of Greater Miami, with nearly 20 attorneys on staff, provides civil legal services to about 30,000 clients and family members a year but still turns people away. To qualify for free legal services, a family of four must earn less than $29,000 a year.
Groups that provide free legal service to the poor are partially funded by interest earned on money placed in bank escrow accounts each time there’s a real estate closing. In fiscal year 2006-07, that distribution amounted to $72.6 million statewide. Last year, even with real estate’s bounce-back, it totaled only $5.3 million.
Neufeld says attorneys are still signing up to be part of the service, and he expects they’ll start getting referrals by next month. He and Cypen are optimistic that the service will demonstrate one way to chip away at the numbers of Floridians who can’t afford to hire a lawyer.
“If there’s enough participation by the lawyers, and the clients are happy then we’ll keep doing it and see if other Bars might be interested in participating,” Cypen says.