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A former law school dean Tuesday urged lawmakers to find funding to pay for attorneys in civil courts to represent Arkansans at or below the poverty level.

Chuck Goldner -- a dean emeritus at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock W.H. Bowen School of Law and outgoing chairman of the Arkansas Access to Justice Commission -- told the Senate and House judiciary committees that the legal options available to poor Arkansans are lacking, and future funding is tenuous for what opportunities exist.

Arkansas ranks 49th in its accessibility to the civil court system for those unable to pay for their own attorneys, according to the National Center for Access to Justice, a group based in New York City.

"For a while there, the big catch phrase was 'doing well by doing good,' which meant that all we needed are the lawyers to go out and represent people for free. ... Well, we don't have enough lawyers to spread this among those who can do this pro bono," Goldner said. "What we need is an increased level of funding, a stable source of funding."

No cost estimates were given to the committees.

Arkansas is one of 18 states where lawmakers do not earmark general revenue for legal aid, according to Access to Justice Commission officials. The commission was created by the Arkansas Supreme Court in 2003 to measure the availability of legal services for poor people and to advocate for those services.

The services that are available to poor Arkansans are paid for through a mix of federal funding, grants and filing fees, which fluctuate year by year.

While the state constitution guarantees a public defender for Arkansans in a criminal court, there is no guarantee for Arkansans to be represented by an attorney in civil or administrative courts.

Civil issues such as domestic relations, fair housing and consumers' rights are all quality-of-life issues in which poor Arkansans face an uneven playing field, according to state Access to Justice advocates who spoke to legislators Tuesday.

Jean Carter is the head of the Center for Arkansas Legal Services, one of two groups providing free legal aid to poor Arkansans. She told legislators Tuesday that even with the help of private practice attorneys volunteering time, the need is great in the state for increased legal aid.

"[Legal aid] has always been an ideal and an aspiration, yet it's always underfunded," Carter said. "Our courthouses have to be open for all Arkansans, otherwise ... 'justice for all' becomes 'justice for some.'"

In 2011, for example, nine out of 10 defendants in family law cases represented themselves without an attorney, and in 2014, nine in 10 housing cases had defendants appearing without an attorney, according to Arkansas Access to Justice officials.

Between Carter's group and Legal Aid of Arkansas, there are about 50 attorneys serving about 12,000 clients annually in Arkansas, but the groups turn away tens of thousands of others seeking help, legal aid advocates said.

About 1,440 attorneys statewide have taken on pro bono cases that accounted for an estimated $1.2 million in legal services, according to the state commission. The commission's study showed that 746,000 Arkansans live at 125 percent of federal poverty level or below, which is the standard for legal aid eligibility.

After the meeting, Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, said funding for more legal aid is worth discussing. But he thinks it would be problematic for the state to indirectly finance one party of a lawsuit while the other party had to pay for an attorney out of its own pocket.

Rep. Camille Bennett, D-Lonoke, like Ballinger, is an attorney and said that it was "embarrassing" for the state to do so poorly in ensuring access to civil courts for its most vulnerable.

Bennett said that it would cost taxpayers less in the long run to help provide more upfront legal aid -- particularly for poor women with children and for veterans -- instead of addressing their needs on the back end through more costly social services.

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, said investing more in legal aid makes sense because it saves money in the long run.

Hutchinson, who is an attorney, said he wants to explore forming a new state agency that handles some civil legal issues for poor Arkansans.

Asked if such a fix was politically feasible, he said it'd "be tough" to get more money for legal aid from a conservative Legislature interested in cutting government spending.

"It wouldn't be anyone could walk in and get free legal services. It'd be for those who are indigent and for issues that involve losing a child or some type of deprivation of liberty," Hutchinson said. "If you look at the savings that would be generated ... you would generate long-term savings by addressing issues on the front end and not let them build and build and exacerbate until [the state] comes in and there's a huge investigation cost and foster care issues. ... But, because of the long-term savings that would occur, it is a conservative principle to do it."

Metro on 10/28/2015

Print Headline: Ex-dean: State lags in giving legal aid

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