Legal services shake-up 

When Wayne County Neighborhood Legal Services lost $3.3 million in funding this year, many thought the legal needs of many of the county’s poorest residents would go unmet.

Not so, says Deierdre Weir, executive director of Legal Aid and Defender Association (LADA). According to Weir, whose agency obtained the grant that had been awarded to Neighborhood Legal Services since 1974, overall client services will not be diminished, but enhanced.

Weir says that LADA, which applied for the grant for the first time last year, was chosen because of its "outstanding reputation in the legal community" and the solid representation it provides clients.

A report prepared by the Washington, D.C.-based Legal Services Corp. states that Weir’s group received the grant because of its emphasis on quality over quantity.

"LADA staff do not feel pressured to turn around a high number of cases each month," allowing them to tackle more complex litigation, the report says.

By contrast, lawyers at Neighborhood Legal Services are described in the report as being expected to increase their caseload each year. "This encourages case handlers to move cases quickly through the system and has the potential to interfere with efforts to fully represent clients," the report states.

"We are not numbers driven," says Weir. "To me it’s about providing quality services to the clients."

The report also states that LADA has more attorneys who are paid higher wages than those at Neighborhood Legal Services, where starting salaries are among the lowest in the country.

With the additional funding, Weir says she intends to add another 35 attorneys to the 35 new employees already hired. Last year, with 19-full time staff, LADA handled between 5,000 and 6,000 civil suits and about 9,000 criminal cases. Weir says she expects the number of civil cases handled to double with the new grant money, which can only be used for these type of cases.

According to Linda Bernard, executive director of Neighborhood Legal Services, 15 support staff have been laid off as a result of the funding cut, which forced the agency to reduce its annual budget from more than $8 million to about $5 million. In addition, five attorneys have left for other jobs.

Bernard says that the 25,000 cases the agency handles each year will decrease only temporarily.

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