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Senate Passes New Legal Aid Funding
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The nonprofit agencies that represent the poor would get a big funding boost under a bill passed by the state Senate. It would be a welcome reprieve if passed by the House, but it would not fully repair the damage from the recession. 

Legal Aid lawyers handle civil cases for low-income clients for free -- everything from divorce and domestic violence complaints, to housing and unemployment proceedings.

But their funding took a huge hit with the economic downturn. Most of it comes from interest earned on accounts where lawyers temporarily hold money while cases and real estate transactions are finalized. As housing sales slowed and interest rates declined, Legal Aid's funding abruptly dropped 40 percent.

A bill passed by the Senate last week would create a new funding stream with higher court fees. It would bring in $7 million more every year by raising the prices for things like filing a lawsuit, convening a jury trial, or appealing a decision. The bill is now up for a vote in the House.

Greater Hartford Legal Aid director Elam Lantz says the new funding is a much needed lifeline.

"It'll mean that it'll help stabilize our budget. At this point in time, we will not be considering any additional layoffs."

The Hartford office laid off eight staff in March, including six lawyers. This wouldn't be enough of a boost to rehire them. Already, Lantz says his office is filing fewer complaints since the layoffs, and that's at a time when demand for their services is up. 

Even with this new cash infusion, the state's three Legal Aid agencies would still rely on savings to cover costs this year. By the time that runs out, they're hoping an economic turnaround will bring more business for lawyers to help recoup their traditional source of funding.