The front of the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau is seen on Wednesday, April 12, 2023. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
An overloaded nonprofit that provides free legal help would be able to serve more Alaskans in need if legislation proposed by Sen. Forrest Dunbar, D-Anchorage, becomes law.
Senate Bill 104, discussed by the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday, would direct 25% of the Alaska Court System’s filing fees to the Alaska Legal Services Corporation, up from 10% in an existing state law.
Dunbar, a licensed attorney, formerly worked for the agency on a variety of cases.
“They provide absolutely crucial legal services, free legal services, to those who can’t afford them. Things like family law, landlord-tenant (disputes); they are also the state’s largest provider of free legal services to survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault,” Dunbar said.
One case near the end of his time working with the corporation stuck in his mind.
“I worked on a case where family members were trying to win custody of a little girl who had been abused almost to the point of death. And they were helping to try and basically save this little girl. And it remains — even though I did a very tiny bit of work on that case — it remains the most important legal work I think I’ve ever done,” he said.
While the Alaska Constitution guarantees a defense attorney to someone in a criminal charge, there’s no such guarantee in a civil lawsuit.
The corporation, founded in 1967, is a nonprofit intended to fill that gap and provide help to Alaskans who can’t afford it.
But, said the corporation’s executive director, Nikole Nelson, the gap is now so large that the corporation can’t fill it.
“This gap has now reached a crisis level because existing funding for Alaska Legal Services has not kept pace with community need. And this is really what SB 104 is meant to address,” she said.
“In our 12 regional offices, we may see mothers who have been abused in front of their children and who don’t have the financial means to leave the relationship,” Nelson said. “We have grandparents who may be caring for their grandchildren but really need help with operational documents so they can get their grandchildren enrolled in school or get the medical care that they need.”
“We may have a veteran who has been denied his VA benefits even though he earned them through service, but his disabilities (are) keeping him homebound and unable to work. And for all of these problems, there is a legal solution. But unlike in criminal cases … you don’t have a right to legal counsel in those, and this is where ALSC comes in.”
Patrick Reinhart, executive director of the Governor’s Council on Disabilities and Special Education, testified in March to the Senate Judiciary Committee that the corporation and the Disability Law Center of Alaska perform vital work in the state.
“We know that both organizations are struggling to keep qualified attorneys,” he said. “So anything we can do to support efforts for our beneficiary group to access civil legal services is critically important.”
The corporation receives donations and assistance from other groups, but state funding has declined dramatically. It now receives just 57% of the state funding it did in 1984, even as the population of potential clients has tripled, Nelson told the finance committee. That decrease doesn’t account for inflation.
Because of budget struggles, the corporation now turns away half of the cases that come to it, Nelson said.
“To me, it’s a travesty that these people aren’t being served,” said Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks.
If Senate Bill 104 passes the House and Senate and becomes law with the assent of Gov. Mike Dunleavy it would result in about $450,000 more funding for the corporation each year, the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development estimated. That’s an increase from the roughly $300,000 the corporation currently receives under the relevant state law.
“We can serve another 182 clients for every $100,000 that’s added to our budget,” Nelson said.
In 2018, the Legislature considered reserving 25% of the state’s court fees for the corporation but decided against it.
“Since the Legislature at that point didn’t know how much revenue that would garner … it was negotiated down to 10%, with a commitment that it would be revisited if it didn’t meet community need,” Nelson said.
“And so, we’re at the point now where we know the amount of revenue that’s generated at 10%, and it’s not sufficient to the community need,” she said.
Filing fees aren’t kept by the court system, said Nancy Meade, general counsel for the Alaska Court System. Instead, they go into the state’s general fund, where they can be spent as the Legislature and governor direct.
After hearing from Dunbar and Nelson, the finance committee set the bill aside for further discussion. No additional hearings have been scheduled.
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