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Reduced IOLA grants still help civil legal services

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The trustees of the Interest on Lawyer Account Fund announced its 2011 grants to civil legal service organizations throughout the state, totaling $21 million.

In the Rochester area, Empire Justice Center, Legal Aid Society of Rochester, Legal Assistance of Western New York Inc. and Volunteer Legal Services Project of Monroe County all received grant funds.

Legal assistance organizations receiving IOLA grant funds in the Buffalo area include Neighborhood Legal Services, the Western NY Law Center, and the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Erie County Bar Association.

“We know from our grantees across the state that they are facing reduced support at a time when the demand for civil legal services has increased,” said IOLA Executive Director Christopher O’Malley.

“It’s a bit less this year than in previous years, but we knew that in advance,” said Alan Harris, president of the Legal Aid Society of Rochester. “In the scope of things, it’s not awful. Mr. O’Malley alerted all the grantees that we couldn’t expect to receive as much this year so we knew. They are easy to deal with. It’s significant enough to help fund the core of the agency.”

The Legal Aid Society of Rochester received $550,000 for its core service programs in family law, immigration, housing and education.

The Legislature started the IOLA program in 1983. As O’Malley explained, “[i]t enables interest to be earned on short term or nominal deposits held in a lawyer’s pooled client trust account, with the interest remitted directly by the financial institution to the fund for distribution in grants.”

Other area grantees included Legal Assistance of Western New York and Volunteer Legal Services Project of Monroe County. Empire Justice received $500,000, but has to split its award with four other offices across the state. Legal Assistance of Western New York also has to allocate monies to several offices.

“It’s pretty close to what we received last year,” said Kristi Hughes, director of development & administration with Empire Justice Center. “It’s a bit lower than in previous years but that’s the case across the state.”

Hughes said the IOLA grant is a major source of funding for the agency and funds programs for clients with consumer issues, people denied or terminated from federal disability and Supplemental Security Income, families seeking appropriate special education for children and more.

According to Hughes, Empire Justice has been forced to look for alternative funding as a result of being reduced from or completely eliminated from most state government funding.

“We’re trying everything we can to lessen our reliance on state funding,” she said.

Harris said Legal Aid Society would hold on until July 1 to see if cuts must be made.

“Everybody’s in the same boat. We’re operating at a deficit and it’s a juggling act. Based on what I hope, the deficit will be manageable.”

Legal Aid Society and the other IOLA grantees will be eligible to apply for portions of the $12.5 million in funding for civil legal assistance to the indigent from the Office of Court Administration on June 1. That amount is half of what Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman asked for in the state budget, but is still instrumental to civil legal service organizations in the state.

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