Georgia Legal Services Program History

Prior to 1970, organized legal services efforts beyond voluntary, non-funded programs were nonexistent in Georgia other than Atlanta (served by Atlanta Legal Aid Society), and Savannah (which had a very small grant, insufficient to develop a credible effort in that city). Macon and Columbus had voluntary and active efforts organized by local bar associations. A study by the Younger Lawyers Section of the State Bar found a “distressing disproportion between the actual need for legal services by those who cannot afford them and the present supply of legal services available to them.”

Despite the interest within the state in developing legal services for low-income persons, there was little money available for these purposes. In 1969, the U. S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) promulgated a regulation which mandated the inclusion of a legal services component in every state’s social service plan to provide representation of welfare recipients at administrative fair hearings. When the mandatory Program was dropped by HEW for an optional Program, the State Bar of Georgia and the State Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) urged Governor Lester Maddox to release this money for use in a comprehensive legal services Program. This optional Program was able to take advantage of 3-1 federal matching funds for the state dollars.

Georgia Indigents Legal Services (GILS) was incorporated in March, 1970, and by December, 1970, federal funds were committed and GILS was a functioning entity. The incorporation of GILS by the Board of Governors of the State Bar was the culmination of many years of effort to minimize opposition from some portions of the bar and represented the beginnings of a partnership that has continued to this day between the State Bar of Georgia and Georgia Legal Services Program.

In November of 1970, Bettye Kehrer, the first Executive Director, was hired. She stressed the need for cultivating strong Bar relationships and also displayed an extraordinary ability to attract money to the Program. A considerable portion of 1971 was spent in pulling the existing legal aid societies into the GILS structure and setting up offices in these communities. Existing legal aid societies were then present in Columbus, Gainesville, Macon and Savannah. Later, GILS offices were started in Albany, Augusta, Brunswick, Dalton and Rome. By the end of 1971, there were 13 attorneys and 4,535 open cases. However, much of the client service in 1971 and early 1972 was provided through a “legal care” Program whereby members of the private bar handled cases on a free or reduced fee basis.

In 1971, a companion non-profit corporation, Georgia Legal Services Program (GLSP), was incorporated by the Younger Lawyers Section of the State Bar. GLSP, while independent of the State Bar, was formed with its blessing to accept U. S. Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) funding for the express purpose of coordinating a statewide legal services Program and providing expanded legal services in Macon, Columbus and Savannah. OEO required governing boards of its grantees to include potentially eligible clients, which the GILS governing board (composed of members of the State Bar Board of Governors and others) did not. The two organizations operated in collaboration throughout this period, however.

While GLSP/GILS continued to grow in 1973, that year also marked the first of a series of funding battles that sapped some of the strength of the Program and threatened to destroy it. In 1973, HEW eliminated legal services as a service for which federal funding was available. GILS led a nationwide effort to change these regulations. The Georgia General Assembly doubled the appropriation for GILS which made $500,000 available to GILS in the event that HEW terminated funding. Congress ultimately postponed the effective date of the HEW regulations and instructed the agency to come up with new plans. During this same period, attempts by personnel within the Nixon Administration to destroy legal services were gearing up and even the OEO funding began to seem very precarious.

In 1974, GILS and GLSP were sued by a Savannah lawyer seeking to enjoin the organizations and two of their attorneys from further representation of a client in the Municipal Court of Savannah. The plaintiff’s lawyer alleged that the GLSP lawyers were violating Georgia statutes governing the unauthorized practice of law, specifically the practice of law by corporations, and that they were engaged in various unethical practices. The federal court ultimately dismissed the complaint finding that only the organized bar or the state’s Judicial Council have standing to challenge the alleged unauthorized practice of law, not a private citizen, and further that GLSP/GILS were benevolent, charitable corporations falling within the exception to the statutory ban on the practice of law by corporations. Dixon v. Ga. Indigent Legal Services, Inc., 388 F. Supp. 1156 (S.D.Ga. 1974); aff’d. 532 F.2d 1373 (5th Cir. 1976).

The years 1975 and the first half of 1976 saw continuing problems with one political or funding crisis after another. During the 1975 session of the General Assembly, the GILS appropriation met with stiff resistance in the House, ultimately passing by only 17 votes. The appropriation was deleted by the Senate Appropriations Committee (allocating the funds instead to Magnolia State Park in Millen, Georgia) and restored by one vote following a floor fight. Again during the Special Session in July of 1975, GILS’ funding was targeted for deletion, but those efforts were unsuccessful.

Although GILS remained in the 1975 budget, the seeds of destruction had been planted. GILS had become visible and controversial. Opponents saw that the Program was vulnerable and organized a comprehensive, vigorous lobbying campaign for the 1976 session of the General Assembly. The opposition to GILS reached substantial proportions. Special interest groups that had been affected by the work of the Program lobbied vigorously to have Program funds cut from the budget. On February 13, 1976, behind closed doors, the House Appropriations Committee deleted GILS from the budget, and the Senate soon took similar action. This action resulted in the loss of $1 million from the Program’s budget effective July 1, 1976.

The funding loss was met with a number of responses: (1) a “Committee to Save GILS” was formed to spearhead a rigorous funding campaign which included grant proposals to various foundations, churches, federal agencies and other non-legal services funding sources; (2) the President of the State Bar of Georgia led a campaign to set up special task forces to handle cases in the event alternative sources of funding could not be found; (3) substantial efforts were made at the local level to obtain special grants; (4) a statewide staff meeting was held to develop contingency plans. On the day after the funding cutoff decision, the Program terminated all intake and began the process of closing out as many cases as possible before the June 30 cutoff date.

During this same period, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) had been created by the United States Congress, but it appeared that help might come too late to save the Program. The Legal Services Corporation Board of Directors was reluctant to rescue threatened legal services organizations for fear that other funding sources would cut their support. Thus, LSC resisted the pleas to pick up GILS/GLSP’s lost funding. However, to prevent the collapse of such a fine Program, they did agree to bridge-fund the Program from July through October, when the first regular grants from the Legal Services Corporation would become effective. With that bridge-funding, and the first grant from the Legal Services Corporation in October of 1976, the statewide Program had been preserved.

During the Carter administration, the Legal Services Corporation flourished, as did its grantees such as GILS/GLSP. With increasing success in drawing in funds from other sources, GILS/GLSP moved from a period of doubt about whether it would even survive, to a period of rapid growth. From 1976 with a budget of approximately $1.5 million, 8 offices, and a staff of slightly over 100 persons, the Program grew rapidly each year to a 1980 budget of $7.1 million, a staff of 300 persons, and 21 offices. Thus, the time from 1976 until mid-1979 was a period marked by rapid expansion, including the development of new offices and the hiring and training of new staff.

The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 brought new efforts to eliminate federal funding for legal services. The 1982 federal appropriation for LSC was decreased by 25%. Most GLSP satellite offices around the state were closed, except for Athens and Dublin. Although the Reagan Administration sought every year to eliminate funding for legal services, powerful supporters such as the American Bar Association and a bipartisan group of Senators and House Members preserved funding. The Legal Services Corporation was staffed by leadership who were not entirely supportive of the mission of its grantees and a period of heavy handed regulatory provisions and bureaucratic oversight ensued.

Other sources took up the cause of support for legal services for the poor. During this period the State Bar of Georgia initiated the now-annual Campaign for GLSP. In addition, the Supreme Court of Georgia instituted the Interest On Lawyer Trust Accounts (IOLTA) Program, administered by the Georgia Bar Foundation. The IOLTA Program now generates several million dollars each year. Historically forty percent (40%) of those funds were allocated to indigent criminal defense, 10% allocated to the Civil Justice Foundation for public education programs about the law, and the remaining 50% was divided among other programs. When the statewide public defender system was established, the IOLTA allocation to the criminal defense system waned. The bulk of the balance goes to GLSP, the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, pro bono programs, and various law related organizations.

The national political winds shifted again in 1992 with the election of President Bill Clinton, whose wife Hillary had chaired the federal Legal Services Corporation board in the Carter Administration. Federal funding increased slightly, and a supportive board and staff took the reins of LSC.

The friendly climate was extremely short-lived, however, ending with the elections in 1994 which brought a Republican majority and a very conservative philosophy to the Congress. Once again LSC was targeted for elimination during the 1995 budget process.

In March 1995, then State Bar President Harold T. Daniel, Jr., led a bipartisan delegation of leaders from Georgia which included former Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold C. Clarke and sitting Supreme Court Justices Carol Hunstein and Hugh Thompson to Washington, D.C., to visit with every Georgia Senator and House Member. Their message urged support for civil legal services for the poor in Georgia. In addition, the State Bar of Georgia repeatedly passed resolutions of support for civil legal services, and efforts were mounted to educate and mobilize concerned lawyers and judges all over the state to support funding for legal services. Because of this work, similar efforts in other states, and a national strategy to preserve legal services for the poor, including other powerful allies such as the American Bar Association, organized state and local bars, and a bipartisan group of Senators and Congresspersons, federal funding was preserved.

Although funding was preserved, the 1996 LSC appropriation was cut by 30% and severe restrictions were imposed on grantees, including GLSP. As a result, GLSP lost one-quarter of its staff and remaining staff were subjected to prohibitions on class actions, attorneys fee claims, welfare reform advocacy, representation of prisoners, and also severe limitations on legislative and administrative agency advocacy. In 1997 federal funding was increased minimally, but all the restrictions on advocacy were maintained. Federal funding since that time has increased minimally, but has not yet reached its 1995 level.

Following the cutbacks in 1995 and 1996, GLSP strengthened its efforts to diversify its sources of funding. The most significant source of new support came in 1998 at the initiative of then State Bar President Linda Klein. Working with the Supreme Court of Georgia, Klein and State Bar lobbyists convinced the 1998 Georgia General Assembly to appropriate $2 million for civil legal services to victims of domestic violence in Georgia. These funds are administered through a competitive grant process by the Administrative Office of the Courts, and have become a significant source of funding for GLSP. For 2007, the Program was awarded almost $1.4 million from this source.

In 1996, GLSP achieved a significant milestone with the establishment of the Georgia Legal Services Foundation. The Program was the recipient of a gift of $1,000,000 from the remainder funds of a class action lawsuit, with which the GLSP board decided to establish the Foundation as a separate corporation. The Foundation board oversees investment of the corpus, raising new funds, and making grants to the Program for various purposes. In 1998, the Foundation awarded the Program $110,000 for the upgrade of its computers. In 2000, the Foundation provided $100,000 toward the purchase of a small office building in Macon. Again in 2005, the Foundation assisted the Program to install new hardware for all staff to facilitate a new Wide Area Network, linking all GLSP offices.

Technology has grown in importance for the Program’s operations and for service to clients. In 1998-9, the Program worked in partnership with the Fund for the City of New York and the LSC Office of Inspector General to establish the first Internet Temporary Protective Order Project in the nation, offering victims to prepare court pleadings via a website. GLSP’s work to serve family violence victims has established GLSP as a national authority and leader on providing innovative services to victims, including military families, non-English-speaking families, and on a variety of fronts including gun violence, use of the statewide TPO registry to enhance enforcement, law enforcement training to improve incident response, and more.

In 1999, GLSP raised almost $1 million for a massive Program-wide technology upgrade to convert from DOS to Windows and prepare for the millenium. Several private foundations, including the GLS Foundation, contributed to the Program for this important endeavor, demonstrating the broad-based support enjoyed by the firm.

In early 2000, GLSP expanded its long-standing Community Economic Development work in partnership with State Bar’s “A Business Commitment” pro bono committee and a grant from the Ford Foundation as part of a national pilot to engage business lawyers in delivering pro bono work. The Program’s efforts were unique in focusing on rural areas and very grassroots organizations, in contrast to the more common CED work focusing on urban inner-city neighborhoods. GLSP also took steps to revitalize its Farmworker Project, expand its HIV/AIDS projects, and rise to the need for disaster legal assistance when tornadoes struck Camilla, Georgia.

In 2001 GLSP celebrated its 30th anniversary; purchased its first office building in Macon; commissioned an oral history project; endured staff cuts due to the impact of large medical claims and rising cost of health care; and agreed to participate, together with ALAS, in pilot project with LSC Office of Inspector General to produce geocoded maps of client service

GLSP and Atlanta Legal Aid Society secured grants from LSC to embark on statewide website project; that website has become one of the most successful and highly regarded resources among legal services programs nationwide. GLSP and ALAS also fended off a subpoena from the LSC Office of Inspector General for confidential client information related to the GIS mapping project. Controversy also developed out of the newly-revitalized Farmworker Project and the lawsuits filed by its attorneys to collect unpaid wages and other work-related expenses guaranteed by law. GLSP successfully responded to grower complaints registered with Congress, LSC, the LSC Inspector General, and the State Bar of Georgia

In 2003, GLSP moved to the new State Bar Center, hoping to achieve greater visibility among the private bar and foster opportunities for more volunteer work and other collaborations. The conference center of the State Bar building has proven to be a rich resource for training and meetings of all varieties. GLSP also expanded outreach to Latino communities and clients in response to growth in the populations of new immigrants around the state, and especially in north Georgia.

In 2004 GLSP responded to a change in state Medicaid policy that threatened to displace more than 1000 nursing home residents. The Program mobilized attorneys and paralegals, ALAS staff, and volunteer attorneys and others to establish qualifying income trusts enabling frail very elderly senior to stay in their homes. The Program continued its pathbreaking technology work, including videotapes on its websites for training, linkages to make use of law students for research projects, shared knowledge and expertise posted online for staff to exploit, and more. This year, GLSP secured almost $1.2 million in family support for family violence survivors and children

The State Bar of Georgia partnership brought new fruit in 2005 when the Board of Governors approved an “opt-out” contribution option on the Bar Dues notice, resulting in a substantial increase in attorney contributions to the Program. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita brought thousands of survivors to Georgia, scores of whom were served by GLSP staff to meet critical needs; GLSP launched a new Kinship Care project in three offices with state funding to assist relative caregivers with a variety of critical legal needs to stabilize their families

GLSP celebrated its 35th anniversary in 2006 with a gala dinner at the State Bar Annual Meeting in partnership with the Lawyers Foundation of Georgia. On the other hand, the State Bar Board of Governors removes “opt out” contribution spot on dues notice, cutting revenues from State Bar Campaign in half. In response, Bar leadership established special Task Force for Funding for GLSP, and GLSP continued its aggressive fundraising strategies.

GLSP now has well over 70 different funding sources, although LSC’s federal dollars still comprise 48% of its budget. Thus federal funding remains essential for the existence of statewide civil legal services to Georgia’s low-income residents. The Program has yet to reach the staff size or extent of services that it offered in the late 1970s. The State Bar of Georgia continues to be very supportive of the Program’s mission.

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