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EDITORIAL: Iowa Legal Aid helps deliver justice

CR Gazette Editorial Board –

For 35 years, Iowa Legal Aid has provided free civil legal services for Iowans with incomes barely above the poverty level or much lower. The non-profit organization has evolved into the one major provider of such services statewide and has helped thousands of Iowans resolve problems involving family, housing, consumer, health care and other non-criminal legal issues.

Its staff attorneys work for much less than attorneys for other public service positions — the entry level salary is about $40,000. In 2011, statewide, Legal Aid resolved 22,186 cases within budget revenue of $7,260,715 — an average of about $317 per case. On the down side, Legal Aid officials estimate there were about 15,000 eligible families turned away because of insufficient staff resources.

That gap is a product of two factors: Demand for services has been up in recent years, largely because of the recession and housing mortgage crisis. And revenue for Iowa Legal Aid is down, more than $1 million just from 2010 to 2011. That forced a hiring freeze and reduction of 15 staff attorneys and seven support staff.

Iowa Legal Aid relies on several income sources:

– The federal Legal Services Corporation, which funds similar programs around the country with public money. Iowa Legal Aid has seen two years of cuts totaling $500,000.

– Grants from the Iowa Supreme Court’s IOLTA Commission — a lawyers’ trust pool. Those have dropped 85 percent over the past four years because of low interest rates

– State aid, since 1996. Currently, it’s about $1.8 million, down from a high of about $2.2 million.

– Foundation grants and other private donations.

Some attorneys provide pro bono work to supplement the staff. The Cedar Rapids office has about 200 such volunteers on its list.

Jim Kringlen is the managing attorney for the local office. He’s worked there for 22 years, primarily because it’s “very rewarding work,” he told us — certainly not because of a handsome paycheck.

Iowa Legal Aid is a good deal for low-income Iowans and for Iowa taxpayers. Serving all those in true need may never be attainable with so many social services clamoring for funds these days. But a future without much legal assistance for fellow Iowans would surely be much less just.

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