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HomeNewsArchivesLegal Services Asks Senate for $650,000 Funding to Maintain Current Operations

Legal Services Asks Senate for $650,000 Funding to Maintain Current Operations

July 13, 2007 — Senators supported Legal Services of the Virgin Islands’ request for $650,000 in government funding during a Finance Committee hearing in Frederiksted Friday.
In his opening testimony, Executive Director Richard Austin described what Legal Services does. It is a 501(c)(3) private charity that provides free legal services in civil court for clients who cannot afford to hire attorneys themselves. The government must provide attorneys to those who cannot afford one in criminal cases, but not in civil cases such as landlord-tenant disputes and victims of scams. Legal Services fills that gap.
“Our mission is to access justice, protect rights and educate people in poverty in order to empower them to move toward self-sufficiency,” Austin said.
Legal Services is not part of the government, but it receives some government funding, so it must appear and defend that funding during the legislative budget process.
“Our total budget this year is about $1.5 million,” Austin said. “Last year it was about $1.5 million, too, so we are staying flat.”
Besides V.I. government money, the agency receives funding from the federal government, charitable foundations such as United Way and private donations.
“Last year we served 1,164 individuals,” Austin said. “Closing their cases impacted approximately 3,492 individuals. We also served thousands more through our legal-education activities. Family court is probably 50 percent of our caseload.”
Sen. Terrence “Positive” Nelson, chairman of the Finance Committee, went on record in support of the request.
“I don’t see any problem with the $650,000 here,” he said. “Will you be able to increase your services, though?”
“We will be able to hold the line,” Austin said. “There will be no increase.”
Nelson asked if the level of demand was increasing.
“Absolutely,” Austin said. “But we adopted the position today not to come in and argue for more money. If the territory is taking the position money is not available — if the governor is telling his people not to request more — we thought we should come in and accept it. … We are not dissatisfied.”
Asked how much need there is for Legal Services, Austin pointed to the national stage first, then to the Virgin Islands.
“Last year, in a report of unmet civil legal needs, we discovered only half the legal needs of low-income, impoverished Americans were being met,” he said. “The greatest pocket of poverty in the Virgin Islands right now is in the Frederiksted area, in single-family homes. We need to look at maybe relocating a fully staffed office to that area. We did that when I first came here, but it closed about 10 years ago for fiscal reasons.”
Asked what he would put on a wish list, Austin said they could use two attorneys and a legal assistant for every office.
“But then you’re talking about real money,” he said.
Sen. James Weber, seeing an item in the legislative post-audit, “Transportation, Not for Travel: $103,224,” asked Austin how many vehicles Legal Services owned.
“We have no vehicles,” Austin said, later determining the budget item to be a clerical error.
By comparison, the Public Defender’s Office — a government agency with a similar mission, serving a similar number of clients — requested $200,000 to replace six of their eight vehicles when they appeared to defend their budget request June 29. The Public Defender’s Office provides attorneys to defend indigent criminal suspects. They must serve all their clients, while Legal Services chooses whom they serve. The Public Defender’s Office is larger, with more employees, and a somewhat bigger budget than the private, not-for-profit Legal Services.
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July 13, 2007 -- Senators supported Legal Services of the Virgin Islands’ request for $650,000 in government funding during a Finance Committee hearing in Frederiksted Friday.
In his opening testimony, Executive Director Richard Austin described what Legal Services does. It is a 501(c)(3) private charity that provides free legal services in civil court for clients who cannot afford to hire attorneys themselves. The government must provide attorneys to those who cannot afford one in criminal cases, but not in civil cases such as landlord-tenant disputes and victims of scams. Legal Services fills that gap.
“Our mission is to access justice, protect rights and educate people in poverty in order to empower them to move toward self-sufficiency,” Austin said.
Legal Services is not part of the government, but it receives some government funding, so it must appear and defend that funding during the legislative budget process.
“Our total budget this year is about $1.5 million,” Austin said. “Last year it was about $1.5 million, too, so we are staying flat.”
Besides V.I. government money, the agency receives funding from the federal government, charitable foundations such as United Way and private donations.
“Last year we served 1,164 individuals,” Austin said. “Closing their cases impacted approximately 3,492 individuals. We also served thousands more through our legal-education activities. Family court is probably 50 percent of our caseload.”
Sen. Terrence “Positive” Nelson, chairman of the Finance Committee, went on record in support of the request.
“I don’t see any problem with the $650,000 here,” he said. “Will you be able to increase your services, though?”
“We will be able to hold the line,” Austin said. “There will be no increase.”
Nelson asked if the level of demand was increasing.
“Absolutely,” Austin said. “But we adopted the position today not to come in and argue for more money. If the territory is taking the position money is not available -- if the governor is telling his people not to request more -- we thought we should come in and accept it. ... We are not dissatisfied.”
Asked how much need there is for Legal Services, Austin pointed to the national stage first, then to the Virgin Islands.
“Last year, in a report of unmet civil legal needs, we discovered only half the legal needs of low-income, impoverished Americans were being met,” he said. “The greatest pocket of poverty in the Virgin Islands right now is in the Frederiksted area, in single-family homes. We need to look at maybe relocating a fully staffed office to that area. We did that when I first came here, but it closed about 10 years ago for fiscal reasons.”
Asked what he would put on a wish list, Austin said they could use two attorneys and a legal assistant for every office.
“But then you’re talking about real money,” he said.
Sen. James Weber, seeing an item in the legislative post-audit, “Transportation, Not for Travel: $103,224,” asked Austin how many vehicles Legal Services owned.
“We have no vehicles,” Austin said, later determining the budget item to be a clerical error.
By comparison, the Public Defender’s Office -- a government agency with a similar mission, serving a similar number of clients -- requested $200,000 to replace six of their eight vehicles when they appeared to defend their budget request June 29. The Public Defender’s Office provides attorneys to defend indigent criminal suspects. They must serve all their clients, while Legal Services chooses whom they serve. The Public Defender’s Office is larger, with more employees, and a somewhat bigger budget than the private, not-for-profit Legal Services.
Back Talk Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name and city and state/country or island where you reside.