Legislature(2015 - 2016)CAPITOL 120
04/07/2015 01:30 PM JUDICIARY
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HB 154-CIVIL LEGAL SERVICES FUND 1:36:15 PM CHAIR LEDOUX announced that the first order of business would be HOUSE BILL NO. 154. "An Act allowing appropriations to the civil legal services fund from court filing fees." CHAIR LEDOUX stated that she has a conflict of interest with respect to this bill in that she sits on the Board of Alaska Legal Services Corporation and unless someone objects, she will recuse herself from voting. REPRESENTATIVE KELLER objected. 1:36:40 PM REPRESENTATIVE CLAMAN advised that his firm performs pro bono services for the Alaska Legal Services Corporation (ALSC) on a monthly basis. CHAIR LEDOUX objected. 1:37:28 PM TIM CLARK, Staff, Representative Bryce Edgmon, Alaska State Legislature, said the bill safe guards access to low income Alaskans to the civil justice system by creating a stable mechanism for state funding for ALSC. Specifically, he explained, it allows the legislature to appropriate to the already existing civil legal services fund up to 25 percent of filing fees paid to the Alaska Court System during the previous fiscal year. He said that according to current filing fee totals, 25 percent would provide approximately $550,000 annually to the fund. He noted that it will always be at the legislature's discretion to appropriate that percentage of fees both into the fund and to make appropriations from the fund to ALSC. He offered that this is necessary because the Civil Legal Services Fund was originally designed to be capitalized by civil punitive damages collected by the state. However, he noted, the state has not collected punitive damages in three years. He advised that the need for state contributions to ALSC is real as in the past 30 years the number of Alaskans eligible for legal services has more than doubled from approximately 41,000 to more than 100,000. Yet, he related, even with HB 154, the state's contribution to ALSC is a fraction of what it was decades ago. Currently, he said, the appropriation from the state is approximately $450,000. Access to ALSC is that civil justice should not just be for people who can afford an attorney and that HB 154 is important to ascertain that in Alaska the phrase "justice for all" rings true. 1:40:58 PM CHAIR LEDOUX referred to the zero fiscal note and questioned how there could be a zero fiscal note when the legislature is appropriating court fees to ALSC, which would otherwise go into the general fund. MR. CLARK responded that the fiscal note was issued by the Alaska Court System which states that currently all legal filing fees or court fees go directly into the general fund, and there has never been any receipt authority or any mechanism of that sort for the Alaska Court System. The zero fiscal note pertains specifically to their operations. He said the legislature always retains discretion in its appropriations as to how the funds are eventually spent or not spent. In that regard, he explained, it would be the legislature's decision to appropriate those filing fee percentages into the fund and in turn, their decision as to whether to appropriate from the fund to civil legal services. CHAIR LEDOUX opened public testimony. 1:43:08 PM NIKOLE NELSON, Executive Director, Alaska Legal Services Corporation (ALSC), said the Alaska Legal Services Corporation (ALSC) is aimed at reducing Alaska's civil justice gap. She explained that ALSC through its more than 20 attorneys provides free civil legal aid to Alaskans in need. She pointed out that its mission is to ensure that there is meaningful access to the civil justice system for all Alaskans and not just those who can afford it. Assistance is provided to individuals and families regarding critical legal needs that affect their safety, family stability, and their self-sufficiency. She described scenarios, such as: a grandparent raising their grandchildren who is unable to enroll them in school or to receive health care because they lack legal documents to do so; an abused spouse that does not have the financial means to leave the relationship and fears losing custody of her children if she does; a fisherman who has spent his life savings to have his boat repaired by an out-of- state mechanic only to have it return and catch on fire in the prime of fishing season with no recourse to continue to earn a living; and/or a veteran denied his federal veterans affairs benefits despite the fact he has earned them through his service to this country and his disability leaves him unable to work in his rural community. She noted that there are civil legal solutions for these problems, but unlike a criminal defendant's guarantee that the court will appoint an attorney if the defendant cannot afford an attorney, there is no such right in the civil legal context. She related that for people like these, and thousands like them, ALSC is their only hope to access Alaska's civil legal services. She pointed out that each year, approximately 2,500 cases are served and benefit an additional 6,000 people as most the people served have children in their households. The Alaska Legal Services Corporation provides staff attorneys and volunteer pro bono attorneys who donate their time and expertise. She noted that ALSC serves thousands more within its self-help resources, and on-line, and through community education services to ensure that access to the justice system is a reality for rural residents as well. She related that the problem is that, despite the fact ALSC is stretching its legal resources, it is not able to serve everyone and it is turning away one person for every one that is served. Ms. Nelson indicated that people are turned away, not because there are no laws to protect them, and not because their cases lack merit, but because ALSC does not have the staff and resources to help. 1:46:41 PM MS. NELSON related that HB 154 is aimed at providing additional resources to bridging Alaska's justice gap. She described ALSC as being cost efficient and effective in that an average case costs approximately $600. She explained that approximately 80 percent of its cases are resolved without ever going to court, and attorneys are paid far below the market rate for private bar or state attorneys. She expressed that last year volunteer attorneys donated almost $500,000 in their time. She offered that ALSC is doing what it can but it is not enough to stand against the justice gap alone. 1:48:07 PM REPRESENTATIVE GRUENBERG asked whether ALSC is on the "pick- click-and give" program. MS. NELSON answered in the affirmative. REPRESENTATIVE GRUENBERG offered that in other states within bar dues a person can give an additional donation, and asked if there is a similar program in Alaska. MS. NELSON answered in the affirmative. REPRESENTATIVE GRUENBERG requested the current status of pro bono which has been under ALSC in the past. MS. NELSON answered that previously and currently pro bono has been under ALSC. She described the pro bono program as strong and it assists in stretching ALSC resources. 1:49:19 PM REPRESENTATIVE GRUENBERG questioned that with respect to HB 154, if the money goes to the ALSC, would some of that be sent to pro bono. MS. NELSON answered that it could use its state dollars to extend its resources and it is possible but not guaranteed that it could go to pro bono. REPRESENTATIVE GRUENBERG surmised there was nothing to prevent the state dollars going to pro bono. MS. NELSON said there is nothing to prevent it. REPRESENTATIVE GRUENBERG quiered whether pro bono has a separate funding source or would this be the mechanism. MS. NELSON responded that the pro bono program is funded through a variety of sources that fund the entire program, and this is the proper mechanism. 1:50:17 PM REPRESENTATIVE GRUENBERG asked whether Ms. Nelson was familiar with Dimmick v. Watts, 490 P.2d 483 (Alaska 1971). MS. NELSON said she was not. REPRESENTATIVE GRUENBERG described it as a case wherein one of the litigants was sued by a company for debt and that person was represented by ALSC. He said that the attorney for the company attempted to get into the question of whether that person was eligible for legal services. He related that the case went to the Alaska Supreme Court who said "you cannot inquire whether this person is eligible for legal services." 1:51:18 PM CHAIR LEDOUX interjected "Where exactly are you going with this." REPRESENTATIVE GRUENBERG replied "I am going because we don't very often have a bill dealing with legal services." CHAIR LEDOUX said this is not a seminar on legal services, this is basically to determine whether ALSC should be funded through this particular mechanism. She asked that Representative Gruenberg limit his questions to the subject of the bill before the committee. REPRESENTATIVE GRUENBERG offered that he is trying to ascertain whether that is still a problem and whether legislatively something should be done. CHAIR LEDOUX remarked that if there is a problem that needs to be tended legislatively that has nothing to do with this bill she was sure Ms. Nelson would be glad to talk with Representative Gruenberg at another time, and he could prepare a bill on the issue. 1:52:07 PM REPRESENTATIVE GRUENBERG advised his second question deals with circumstances where ALSC is conflicted out. CHAIR LEDOUX reiterated that he should chat with Ms. Nelson as to whether she thinks it is a problem, but it is not the subject of this particular bill. 1:52:36 PM REPRESENTATIVE FOSTER commented that the Native Corporation in Nome is contributing office space and that ALSC is doing what it can to get by. He questioned how much it received from "pick- click-and give" in round numbers. MS. NELSON related that the tally is approximately $6,700, which is up from approximately $5,000 last year. REPRESENTATIVE FOSTER surmised that amount is a very small amount of its budget. MS. NELSON offered that its total overall budget is approximately $4.2 million. 1:53:27 PM REPRESENTATIVE CLAMAN surmised that the 25 percent based on court fees this year would be roughly $500,000. MS. NELSON advised that it is approximately $550,000. REPRESENTATIVE CLAMAN asked how that compares with prior years. MS. NELSON requested clarification in whether he was referring to prior years of court fees or the ALSC appropriation. REPRESENTATIVE CLAMAN clarified that his question related to the appropriation to ALSC. MS. NELSON responded that in prior years the appropriation has been $550,000. 1:54:11 PM REPRESENTATIVE CLAMAN surmised that the state appropriation is not the majority of funding. MS. NELSON answered in the affirmative. REPRESENTATIVE CLAMAN asked whether part of the reason between using this formula based on court fees rather than using a population index or cost of living index, is basically trying to tie funding to a litigation related fee. He offered that if litigation was going up and more people were filing that the fees might go up. MS. NELSON opined that is a smart idea but she is not necessarily sure that was the intent, although it does make sense. 1:55:03 PM CHAIR LEDOUX requested the amount of state funding for the last several years, and the funding amount from the state this year. MS. NELSON replied that state funding for the last several years has been $550,000, and this year the operating budget proposed by the Senate and House is $450,000, which is approximately a 20 percent cut. 1:55:51 PM NANCY MEADE, General Counsel, Alaska Court System, said the Alaska Court System is poised to increase its filing fees by a good percentage. CHAIR LEDOUX asked what percentage. MS. MEADE responded that it varies depending upon the fee for the item. For example, the current filing fees collected in FY13 by the Alaska Court System was $2,238,700, and with the increase in filing fees expects it to go up by another million. In that regard, she offered, the 25 percent number would go up by a corresponding order of magnitude. 1:57:12 PM CHAIR LEDOUX questioned whether the filing fees collected by the Alaska Court System go into the general fund, or to the courts. MS. MEADE replied that all fees collected by the Alaska Court System go straight into the general fund, which is why there is no fiscal impact from HB 154. 1:57:42 PM REPRESENTATIVE CLAMAN requested amounts in terms of what the 25 percent was for the last five years. MS. MEADE responded that with regard to the 25 percent number: FY14 = $563,225; FY13 = $559,675; FY12 = $569,900; FY11 = $666,725; FY10 = $653,075. She remarked that they vary somewhat and the committee can expect those to jump by another half or so. 1:58:47 PM REPRESENTATIVE GRUENBERG questioned why the fees have recently gone down. MS. MEADE said she does not have information on that and should not speculate. CHAIR LEDOUX closed public testimony after ascertaining no one further wished to testify. 1:59:50 PM REPRESENTATIVE KELLER moved to report HB 154, Version 29- LS0765\A out of committee with individual recommendations and the accompanying zero fiscal note. There being no objection, HB 154 moved from the House Judiciary Standing Committee. 2:01:05 PM The committee took an at-ease from 2:01 to 2:03 p.m.