Pro bono services in Florida.

AuthorVan Nortwick, William A., Jr.

A brief history and present-day perspective on how Florida lawyers meet their pro bono obligation

Florida lawyers have long responded to the legal needs of the poor through volunteer service. The history of the organized delivery of legal services for the poor in Florida begins in the Depression Era. During that period several communities in Florida developed, under the leadership of local bar associations, legal aid programs to address the local needs of the poor for legal assistance. These programs operated primarily with voluntary staff to handle intake and to refer cases to private attorneys who volunteered their time. In some instances, the programs received United Way (most commonly then referred to as Community Chest) or other community funding to support part-time or full-time nonlawyer intake staff.

In the mid 1960s, with the advent of President Johnson's War on Poverty, federal funding created the opportunity for the development of staffed attorney programs, primarily in the urban areas of Florida. Many bar associations with significant legal aid programs, both staffed and pro bono, elected to continue their own programs and not to accept federal funds to expand the size and scope of existing programs. In those communities, individual attorneys and community groups formed separate organizations to receive federal funding and to initiate new programs for the delivery of legal services to the poor. Orange, Hillsborough,[1] Dade, Leon, and Palm Beach counties are the primary examples of such dual program development. In some instances, such as in Duval, Broward, and Volusia counties, bar associations applied for federal funds to expand the size and scope of their programs. In most other Florida counties, no organized effort emerged among lawyers or in the general community for the creation or expansion of programs to deliver services to the poor through federal funding.

The Levinson Report

In 1970, The Florida Bar and the University of Florida cosponsored a study of the availability of criminal and civil legal assistance to the poor in Florida. This report (commonly referred to as the "Levinson Report," named after the author of the report, Professor Harold Levinson, then of the University of Florida College of Law), found that only 21 of the 67 Florida counties had any form of organized delivery of legal assistance to the poor. The Levinson Report's primary recommendations on improvements to the delivery of civil legal assistance to the poor are as follows:

1) Establish federally funded civil legal services programs in communities not served.

2) Provide adequate funding for legal services programs.

3) Provide in-house counsel to inmates at all institutions for relatively long-term detention.

4) Establish other federally funded legal services programs in other areas on the basis of the peculiar type or intensity of local need.

5) Encourage performance of pro bono services, including the establishment of a guideline setting an amount of pro bono work that is appropriate and enactment of legislation to enable government attorneys to do pro bono work.

6) Establish a statewide organization to coordinate, improve, and initiate legal services programs throughout Florida.

It is a comment on the farsightedness of the Levinson Report that its recommendations have been and continue to be of great importance in Florida. For example, it was not until 1981 that federally funded civil legal services programs had been created and expanded to cover all counties in Florida, although actual service availability was more a fiction than a reality in many counties. Many rural counties still have only nominal levels of service. In addition, it was not until 1994 that a program was adopted in Florida to encourage and facilitate greater voluntary pro bono service and a guideline was established on the appropriate minimum amount of pro bono service that should be provided each year.

The 1970s

During the 1970s, there was significant growth and expansion in the legal services delivery system in Florida. This growth and expansion was due primarily to the availability of increased federal funding for the expansion of existing programs and the creation of new programs to serve unserved counties. By 1981, all 67 counties were included within the service area of at least one program. For legal services programs not receiving federal funds, several programs also experienced growth through increased efforts by local bar associations and bar leaders to expand pro bono legal services and develop more community funding to support the staff Components of their programs.

Nevertheless, by the close of the decade of the 1970s, the need for the delivery of civil legal assistance to the poor in Florida continued to outdistance efforts to expand such assistance. In 1979, in The Florida Bar v. Furman, 376 So. 2d 378 (Fla. 1979), the Supreme Court of Florida recognized the seriousness of the problem:

Devising means for providing effective legal services to the indigent and poor is a continuing problem. The Florida Bar has addressed this subject with some success. In spite of the laudable efforts by the bar, however, this record suggests that even more attention needs to be given to this subject.[2]

The Furman Report

As a result of the Furman case and its attendant publicity, greater attention was focused on the critical need for legal services. At the direction of the court, The Florida Bar undertook another study of the problem. The study, conducted by the Center for Governmental Responsibility of the Holland Law Center of the University of Florida, also addressed the problem of the access of the middle class to legal services. The report, issued in 1980 and titled, "The Legal Needs of the Poor and Underrepresented Citizens of Florida: An Overview," found that the gap between legal needs and the...

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