HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut lawmakers have averted a looming $4.5 million cut to legal aid services that lawyers for the poor say would have forced them to turn away hundreds of low-income people seeking help with court cases involving domestic violence, eviction and health care.
The General Assembly approved a plan to continue using increased court filing fees to fund legal aid, as part of a massive budget bill adopted just before the legislative session ended Wednesday and sent to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy for his signature. The increased fees approved in 2012 to stabilize legal aid were set to expire next year.
The $4.5 million cut likely would have resulted in the layoffs of at least 35 legal aid staffers around the state, or about a quarter of the current staff, said Steve Eppler-Epstein, executive director of Connecticut Legal Services, which serves 122 of the state's 169 cities and towns.
"It would have been a catastrophe," he said. "We would have had no choice but to lay off legal aid staff at a time when people need help the most."
Dwindling legal aid funding in recent years already has led to staff and service reductions and forced legal aid lawyers to focus on the most pressing cases. Those cases involve women seeking protection from domestic violence, housing tenants seeking to avoid homelessness in eviction cases and families seeking care for disabling health conditions, legal aid lawyers say.
The Connecticut Bar Foundation expects to distribute about $15.7 million to legal aid offices statewide this year, including about $12 million from the court filing fees.
Lawmakers approved the increased fees in 2012 after a main source of legal aid funding — interest from trust accounts set up by lawyers for their clients — plummeted during the recession and amid low interest rates, dropping from $20 million in Connecticut in 2008 to $1 million in 2012.
The state Judicial Branch supported making the fee increases permanent.
"The Judicial Branch recognizes the critical need that legal aid organizations have in enhancing access to the courts for those unable to afford an attorney," said Judge Patrick L. Carroll III, the chief court administrator.