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Bill would shore up legal aid funding

It is a privilege for me to serve on the board of governors for the Oregon State Bar. I am one of four non-lawyer public members, and I strive to bring fresh perspective to an organization that serves as a steward of our state’s justice system. Having spent most of my professional life in academia, this role has afforded me quite an education. I am impressed by the dedicated and rigorous thinking, and comprehensive services found in Oregon’s State Bar.

Disheartening, however, is the dramatic funding crisis in our legal aid system. Legal aid is the safety net that helps Oregon’s poor when faced with life-altering crises: domestic violence and child abuse, loss of housing, loss of wages, challenges to child custody and consumer fraud victimization. Legal aid is often a key means of escape from domestic violence. While defendants in a criminal case are guaranteed legal counsel, there is no such guarantee for those affected by these devastating civil matters. There is legal aid, if available.

The legal aid system has been chronically underfunded, but it now has reached an acute crisis threshold. The recent recession brought deep cuts in several legal aid funding sources. Coupled with a 60 percent increase in Oregon’s poverty population since 2008 (eighth highest in the nation), the state estimates that we are now meeting just 15 percent of the need for civil legal services in Oregon.

We know from research that the effects of legal crises on poor families can multiply. A victim of domestic violence is in greater danger of losing her home, her job, and/or her children. A recent study found that the single greatest factor in reducing domestic violence in a community is the presence of a legal aid office. The lawyers who provide legal aid stabilize communities, yet Oregon’s legal aid providers have cut staff by 20 percent and closed two offices, even as need has grown.

Currently, the Oregon Legislature is considering a bill that would provide additional funding to this beleaguered system. While not a panacea, the proposed funding would bring additional support to the system and narrow the growing justice gap.

House Bill 2700 makes sense also because it addresses what happens to unclaimed money in a class action lawsuit — a suit where a pool of people (the “class”) sues a defendant for alleged fraud or wrongdoing. If the defendant is found guilty or chooses to settle short of trial, the jury determines how much the defendant should pay to the class.

Inevitably, some parties to the class are not found, or do not come forward. In most states, that residual money is then directed to a charity or non-profit community good. It’s a doctrine called “cy pres” (“next best thing”). Oregon is among a small minority of states that do not employ the this doctrine, and so the money goes back to the corporate defendant. This legislation would provide that 50 percent of those residual dollars would be distributed to legal aid, with the remaining 50 percent going to a charitable purpose at the discretion of the judge.

I was motivated to seek this board position in large part because of my deep conviction that a fair and just system for settling disputes is a necessary foundation of a healthy community. When large swaths of our population have no hope of finding help in the midst of legal crises, we should be seeking every opportunity to rectify that injustice. I encourage broad public knowledge of this issue.

Dr. Elisabeth Zinser, a member of the board of governors of the Oregon State Bar, is a retired president of Southern Oregon University and a senior fellow of the Association of American Colleges & Universities.