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Originally published February 29, 2012 at 4:03 PM | Page modified February 29, 2012 at 7:01 PM

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Cuts in legal aid would harm those already financially strapped

Guest columnists Richard McDermott, presiding judge of the King County Superior Court, and Barbara Madsen, chief justice of the Washington Supreme Court, voice concern that at a time of increasing legal needs for low-income residents, legal aid resources are facing cuts.

Special to The Seattle Times

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MANY times today, someone will walk into King County Superior or District Court and try to address a serious legal problem without help from an attorney. It might be an unemployed homeowner facing foreclosure, a man appealing denial of disability assistance or a woman seeking a protection order.

Our courts will do everything possible to ensure these disputes are adjudicated quickly and fairly, but the Great Recession has dramatically increased the number of people seeking legal help involving family safety, shelter, predatory lending and access to basic services.

About 10,000 people a year navigate the King County courts without attorneys. Nearly 80 percent of parties in family law cases at the Maleng Regional Justice Center are self-represented at one point in the proceedings. Unfortunately, our Superior Court has had to impose user fees on those financially able in order to provide orientation sessions and courthouse facilitators to help those acting as their own attorneys.

Working to bridge the gap for low-income residents who can't afford to hire attorneys is Washington state's civil legal aid system, a unique public-private partnership that brings together a small number of nonprofit attorneys and thousands of volunteer attorneys across Washington who provide legal assistance in cases affecting basic human needs.

We are deeply concerned that at a time of increasing legal needs for Washington's low-income residents, legal aid resources have steadily decreased and more cuts are possible.

The heart of our civil legal aid system is the nonprofit Northwest Justice Project. NJP operates a statewide hotline and 17 small offices throughout the state. In 2011, NJP attorneys helped 12,805 low-income households throughout Washington, including more than 1,400 cases in King County.

NJP receives state funding from the Office of Civil Legal Aid. This funding supports client services and volunteer programs like the King County Bar Association's Volunteer Lawyer Services and the Eastside Legal Assistance Program. Statewide, these programs recruit and support more than 5,000 volunteer attorneys. In 2011, these programs provided 29,203 hours of volunteer assistance valued at $5.1 million here in King County.

Statewide, volunteer attorneys donate more than 50,000 hours each year.

Volunteer lawyers mediate family law cases, provide courthouse-based help for unrepresented litigants, ensure the best interests of disabled wards are met in guardianship matters, and provide free legal support for court-appointed special advocates who speak for children in dependency and termination cases.

Despite the work of the Northwest Justice Project and dedicated volunteer attorneys, our civil legal aid system stands threadbare, struggling to maintain a skeletal presence across the state and perform its role of helping courts administer justice effectively. Recent and potential cuts make their mission even more difficult.

Since 2010, federal support for civil legal aid has been cut 17 percent while state funding has been cut nearly $1.4 million. Private funding (through the Interest on Lawyer Trust Account program) has dropped by more than $5 million per year from historical average levels. Because of state and federal cuts, NJP has reduced its core attorney staff by nearly 20 percent.

Today, parts of rural Washington are served by a single NJP attorney and only 9.5 state-funded attorneys remain to serve all of King County. In light of the challenges facing low-income and vulnerable people across the state and the recent erosion in statewide legal aid capacity, we are grateful that current legislative budget proposals continue funding for this important function. Protecting this funding is essential; for as Judge Learned Hand once warned, "If we are to keep our democracy, there must be one commandment: Thou Shalt Not Ration Justice."

Richard McDermott is presiding judge of the King County Superior Court. Barbara Madsen is chief justice of the Washington Supreme Court.

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