Petition seeks Bar fees to fund legal aid

A group of Florida lawyers is preparing a petition to the Supreme Court seeking authority to have Bar annual membership fees raised up to $100, with the extra funds earmarked for financially strapped legal aid programs.

Bar President Eugene Pettis reported on the effort at the Board of Governors January 31 meeting and said he expects the board to discuss it at its March 28 meeting in Palm Coast. He also expressed reservations about the petition.

Under Bar rules, any 50 Bar members can submit a petition to the Supreme Court seeking a rule change, but the petition must be submitted to the Bar 90 days before filing with the court to allow the board to review and comment on the petition.

This petition would raise the cap on annual Bar membership fees from $265 to $365.

Kent Spuhler, of Florida Legal Services, is one of the organizers of the petition drive and said he expects it to be submitted to The Florida Bar Foundation Board of Directors and the Bar’s Board of Governors at their respective March meetings. Although the Foundation would be the major beneficiary, he said it is not a Foundation project.

He said Randall Berg of the Florida Justice Institute is also working on the petition and former Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero is leading the drive to get signatures.

“Essentially it comes out of the collapse on the interest on trust accounts [which funds the Foundation’s IOTA program and in turn finances its grants to legal aid agencies],” Spuhler said. “The Florida Bar Foundation has pretty much used up all of its reserves and a lot of the local [legal aid] programs have used up their reserves, and now it looks like interest rates [which plummeted in the recent recession] won’t turn around until 2016.”

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