Federal Cuts Put Legal Foundation For Poor In Bind

Hadley Churchill Kent. Galveston Daily News. July 14, 1996

GALVESTON- Federal budget cuts have reduced the Gulf Coast Legal Foundation’s Galveston office staff from seven attorneys to two in the past year, forcing the agency to turn down many new cases.

At full staff, the office was handling about 1,500 cases on behalf of the county’s poor, but now has a caseload of about 425, said Dwayne Bilton, acting exectuive director of the Galveston office of GCLF.

The Houston-based GCLF lost roughly a third of it’s federal funds from the agency’s primary source, the Washington-based Legal Services. The LSC was created by Congress to steer federal legal aid funds to indigent persons without political interference.

In 1996, the GCLF received $4,606,108 from the LSC, about $800,000 less than in 1995.

The Galveston office, one of four field offices under the GCLF umbrella, received $251,391 this year, compared to $298,485 in 1995.

“There’s a long-standing antipathy toward federal funding for legal services to the poor. But the most recent wave of opposition is due to a very conservative Congress and leadership,” said Niki Mitchell, a spokesman for LSC.

“We don’t have a Congress that’s friendly to free legal services right now,” added Bilton.

“The federal budget cuts have trimmed the Galveston office from seven to two lawyers in one short year. But ultimately it is the Galveston residents who will suffer,” Bilton said.

The GCLF often must turn down cases to cope with the loss of staff and funds, he said.

“We’re accepting new cases on a very limited basis– cases we ordinarily handled last year are now being rejected,” said Max Sukiennik, one of the two staff attorneys.

For example, the GCLF no longer accepts divorce cases, which had previously represented a large portion of the caseload.

The office now concentrates its legal work in the areas of family, Social Security, and housing.

The only new cases accepted in these areas are emergencies, such as cases involving spousal or child abuse or cases dealing with children, Sukiennik said.

Sukiennik’s fellow staff attorney, Stephen McIntyre, said he regrets turning away non-urgent cases involving families.

Unfortunately, aside from a few local volunteer lawyers, no offical pro-bono group exists in Galveston. Those who are denied representation are often referred to a social service agency, or advised to set up a payment plan with a private attorney.

However, McIntyre said he is working with the Galveston Bar and Galveston County Young Lawyers Association to organize a volunteer program.

Aside from Legal Services, the GCLF relies on grants from many organizations, including the United Way, the city of Houston and the Texas Equal Access to Justice Foundation.

In fact, GCLF recently received a grant from the Texas Equal Access to Justice Foundation for $379,597, of which the Galveston office will receive $63,000– enough to pay the annul salary for one senior attorney or two new attorneys, and a half year’s salary for a secretary, Bilton said.

The local office probably will be able to add another attorney to the payroll this year, but it’s unlikely it will ever see the staff level it enjoyed a year ago, Bilton added.

The GCLF is applying for additional private grants on a daily basis.

Galveston Statistics

  • Number of Galveston county residents qualifying for free legal aid: 33,165
  • Number of cases the Galveston office of the Gulf COast Legal Foundation is handling: 425.
  • Average cost per case handled by the GCLF: $400
  • Federal funding for Galveston office of GCLF in 1995: $9 per prospective client. Funding per client in 1996: $7.58