Gov. Perdue might be sued for legal aid funding

ATLANTA -- A group of lawyers and policy analysts is recommending increased funding on legal aid even as a group of judges wants to sue the governor for cutting their current budget.

Friday, the Judicial Council, made up of all the state's judges, holds a called meeting to discuss whether to sue Gov. Sonny Perdue over his decision to withhold 25 percent of their funds allocated for the final month of the fiscal year. Perdue said he was forced to act because tax collections keep getting worse as the year wears on and earlier cuts haven't proven to be sufficient.

It comes in the middle of a two-year battle over taxpayer funding for criminal -defense attorneys for the poor.

In the shadow of the legal community's complaints about the current budget, a new report calls for more funding to help poor and middle-class Georgians get legal representation for cases other than a criminal defense when taxpayers already fund lawyers. The report, by Kennesaw State University for the Supreme Court of Georgia Equal Justice Commission, found the need for a lawyer is common for non-criminal cases, also known as civil disputes.

"The concept of equal justice for all is the driving force behind this initiative," said Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears of the Supreme Court of Georgia, ex-officio head of the Committee on Civil Justice. "We are all stakeholders in closing the justice gap. If the system does not work equally for all, then it does not work for any of us."

More than three of every five Georgians of modest income has a need for a lawyer at least once a year, according to the report. A family of four making less than $30,000 annually needs a lawyer for three civil matters yearly, and the same size family earning twice as much as an average of 2.63 needs.

The figures are based on a telephone survey which found the most common issues for the poor and middle-income were consumer issues, housing, health care, employment, public benefits, education and family matters. It also found that three fourths of those surveyed didn't realize a lawyer might be able to help them address those problems.

Sears is holding a day-long conference on the issue June 24, less than a week before she retires from the court.

Perdue's spokesman Bert Brantley said the current budget crunch makes additional state funding for legal aid unlikely.

"There are other priorities in the budget as well, such as education and public safety," he said. "There is no way to fully fund everything that every interest group wants at the level they're looking for."

The study asked lawyers why they didn't volunteer to help clients who can't pay, and 85 percent said they didn't have time.

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