Business is booming at Jacksonville-area legal aid.
With offices in Clay, Duval, Nassau, and St. Johns counties, JALA employs approximately 70 attorneys and support staff to provide representation to low-income residents who have civil legal issues but cannot afford to pay. hire a lawyer.
“We’re like any other big law firm,” said attorney Jim Kowalski, JALA’s president and CEO.
The number of people asking for help from JALA is increasing dramatically.
In 2019, total admission was 5,591 cases. In 2020 it grew to 6,471 cases and last year 7,991 people sought help with a civil law issue.
Domestic violence and other family law cases top the list each year, growing from around 1,300 cases in 2019 to over 1,800 in 2021.
Legal aid attorneys also represent people at risk of deportation and foreclosure, those with immigration, human trafficking, home insurance and consumer law issues, such as debt collections. unjustified credit cards and the correction of incorrectly completed credit reports.
JALA’s practice areas are limited as the firm is primarily funded by federal and city grants which specify what types of cases can be accepted with the funds, such as evictions and civil cases involving violence against women, for example. , said Kowalski.
Florida is one of three states that does not support civil legal aid organizations with funding from the state budget, he said.
Matters such as divorce and child support actions are not funded by federal and local grants, which limits the types of legal aid attorneys who can provide.
“We’re not the general service law firm for low-income people supporting the economy,” Kowalski said.
About 80% of JALA’s $8 million budget this year is grants, with private donations and fundraising making up the balance.
Annual events that raise funds for JALA, such as the golf tournament sponsored by the law firm Pajcic & Pajcic and the Law Day party sponsored by Edwards & Ragatz, help balance the budget, Kowalski said.
“We are fortunate to have such strong support from the local legal community.”
Additionally, the Florida Bar sets an ambitious goal for every licensed attorney in Florida to provide at least 20 hours of pro bono legal service each year or donate $350 to a legal aid organization.
JALA also receives approximately 7% of its budget from a portion of collected legal fees and undistributed funds from resolved class action lawsuits in Florida.
One of the tax challenges JALA faces each year is covering overhead costs such as rent and office supplies and employee benefits.
“We send about $50,000 a month for health expenses,” Kowalski said.
JALA’s goal is to become a general service law firm that could meet all the legal needs of the working poor, the elderly and veterans.
To be able to do this will require more support from local government, such as JALA becoming a budgetary item in the city’s annual general budget in addition to the current utility grant which must be renewed each year. year, Kowalski said.
“It will take a change of mentality. The city must decide how it wants to spend its money and what to do to help its most vulnerable citizens. Civil legal aid is an essential service. It’s infrastructure, just like roads,” Kowalski said.
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