Florida Supreme Court Ruling May Impact Legal Services for the Poor

Jun 23, 2021

A ruling from the Florida Supreme Court puts limits on how legal aid clinics can use their funds, potentially restricting the aid available to low-income Floridians who need representation in civil court. 

Unlike in criminal cases, parties in civil cases have no right to an attorney, so many people are left to navigate complex legal matters — things like evictions, family law disputes, and unfair denial of government aid — on their own. 

Legal aid clinics are meant to fill the gap, but according to the Florida Supreme Court, only about 80,000 Floridians ever receive that aid annually, compared to about 5.8 million low- and moderate-income people who are involved in civil court each year. 

At the same time, funding for those legal aid groups has declined sharply due to a drop in interest rates. 

Florida is one of just two states that does not fund legal aid clinics in the state budget. Instead, funding comes from interest earned on the trust accounts Florida attorneys are mandated to hold. The funds are distributed by The Florida Bar Foundation, a charity dedicated to providing legal aid to the poor. Because of years of low interest rates, funding for those legal aid groups has declined sharply. 

The new rules require annual reporting on how interest on trust accounts (IOTA) funding is spent; requires IOTA funds to be disbursed within six months; and places a 15% cap on administrative expenses. 

“Many have urged us to maintain the status quo with respect to the use and distribution of IOTA funds,” wrote Chief Justice Charles T. Canady in the majority opinion. “But the status quo, as the above cited statistics suggest, is becoming increasingly untenable, as a significant number of Floridians continue to go without access to civil justice.”

Among those urging the status quo was Bryan Gowdy, a Jacksonville attorney who represented 26 former presidents of the Florida Bar Foundation in opposing the new rule.  He said the reporting requirements make sense, but disputes the cap on administrative expenses. 

“If you want to have a lawyer provide legal services, he or she needs lots of other tools,” he said. “That includes a building to come work in. That includes computers. That includes having things like accounting.” 

Gowdy said that ironically, the enhanced reporting requirements would mean hiring new accounting staff, a move that would only add to clinics’ administrative costs. 

In a dissenting opinion, Florida Supreme Court Justice Jorge Labarga criticized the provision requiring funds to be disbursed to clinics within six months of receipt, saying it would make it difficult for clinics to plan ahead. 

“This requirement will make it difficult to retain staff. Second, this requirement will eliminate the Foundation’s reserve policy,” he wrote. “Of particular concern — especially in the hurricane-prone state of Florida — is that eliminating the reserve policy will undermine the Foundation’s ability to provide vital support to legal organizations in the wake of a disaster.”

Jacksonville Area Legal Aid President Jim Kowalski could not be reached in time for this story’s publication, but said in a previous interview that the new rule would likely mean the end of some of the clinics’ programming, like its online tool helping people facing eviction. 

The Supreme Court will revisit the new rule in two years to measure its impact. 

Contact Sydney Boles at sboles@wjct.org, or on Twitter at @sydneyboles.