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Schwarzenegger signs bill to increase legal aid funds in California

[JURIST] California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger [official website] signed a bill [AB1723 text, PDF] Thursday designed to increase funding to legal aid representation for low-income residents of California. The new law, which will take effect in January 2008, will enable banks to invest money from lawyers' client trust funds (IOLTA accounts) in higher interest-yielding accounts than those currently used. Client trust accounts, which are pooled together to generate a larger amount of interest, contain monies, such as damages, that are held for a short time until the court determines the appropriate amounts to be paid to the client. The Legal Aid Services Trust Fund Program of the State Bar of California [official website] collects the interest and allocates it among nonprofit organizations, including legal aid providers. While the accounts currently generate roughly $10 million of interest per year, the new law could greatly increase that amount,and would add to the roughly $200 million per year provided by the state to legal aid programs, from federal, state and private funds.

Low income residents are guaranteed representation in criminal matters, but the state is not required to provide representation for civil matters, which fall to legal aid groups. The legal aid provided through these funds includes representation in areas of housing, family law, domestic violence, health, disability, and foster care. Despite its various sources of funding, legal representation for indigent people falls far short of the need, according to the bill's author, California Assemblyman Dave Jones (D-Sacramento) [official website]. Jones cited a state commission's recent report that in California there is currently one lawyer for every 8,361 poor people, as opposed to one for every 240 members of the general population. The bill is expected to broaden the numbers of poor who are able to access legal aid. The San Francisco Chronicle has more.

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