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Jewell Domingos moved to Hawaii to help her brother Anthony, who has chronic illnesses.
She had been living in a small apartment with him in Waikiki as his full-time caretaker when she said she received a letter from the program that provided his housing saying she could no longer stay with her brother.
In fear of jeopardizing his living situation, she relocated to a homeless shelter.
Domingos, who had dedicated all her time to helping her brother, suddenly needed help herself. She called Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, and was provided an attorney for free who fought for her right as a caretaker to not only live with her brother, but at no additional rent. They were successful.
“Having help and an advocate from Legal Aid really turned me around both financially and spiritually,” Jewell said. “It gave me a clean slate.”
Free or low cost legal services for residents in need, like the Domingos siblings, is in jeopardy as funding for civil legal services has been cut from the Hawaii State Judiciary’s budget for at least the next year.
In fiscal year 2016, the Judiciary received $600,000 for civil legal service organizations to help low-income residents, victims of domestic abuse, homeless people, veterans, immigrants and the elderly. In fiscal year 2017, that number was $750,000.
For the 2018 fiscal year that started July 1, no money was allocated toward these services in the Judiciary budget.
“There are a lot of vulnerable people in our communities, and any legal situation can push them over that brink when living paycheck to paycheck.” — Sergio Alcubilla, Legal Aid Society of Hawaii
Rep. Scott Nishimoto, chair of the House Committee on Judiciary where the funding was eliminated, was unavailable for comment. Calls to other members of the committee were deferred to Nishimoto.
Legal Aid Society of Hawaii serves from 8,000 to 10,000 clients each year out of 20,000 calls it receives, said Sergio Alcubilla, director of external relations for the nonprofit. It has its own staff attorneys and is the largest public interest law firm in the state.
The lack of state funding will impact the number of clients and cases it can take on, he said.
“There are a lot of vulnerable people in our communities, and any legal situation can push them over that brink when living paycheck to paycheck,” Alcubilla said.
Aside from Judiciary funding, the nonprofit has been receiving about one fourth of its budget from the national Legal Services Corporation, which the Trump Administration wants to defund. It also receives grants for specific purposes, such as from the state Office of Community Services specifically for helping victims of human trafficking.
Alcubilla said the Judiciary money was especially helpful because it wasn’t tied to one specific use.
A push for permanent funding for civil legal services was backed by Sen. Karl Rhoads during the 2015 legislative season. He was a representative at the time, and chair of the House Judiciary Committee.
He said he had hoped that writing recurring funding into the Judiciary’s budget would provide stability for the organizations.
This session, Rhoads said, the money “got tangled up in the running feud between the Judiciary and the Legislature — I think that might be part of the reason it didn’t pass this year.”
Rhoads said funding could potentially be found in next year’s supplemental budget. He also noted that organizations providing free or low-cost legal services could also apply for grants-in-aid from the state like they have in the past.
“Grants-in-aid are not supposed to be a long-term deal. They’re supposed to keep you alive until you find secure funding,” said attorney Thomas D. Farrell, a volunteer with Volunteer Legal Services Hawaii, another nonprofit that helps low-income clients.
Volunteer Legal Services Hawaii does not have its own staff lawyers, but instead matches people to private attorneys who volunteer their time in consultation clinics or sometimes through full representation.
Farrell has donated pro bono time to the organization for more than two decades and has volunteered on cases ranging from helping victims of domestic violence to completing an adoption. Such services might normally cost up to $325 an hour, he said.
“Providing civil legal services is a good thing that helps people’s lives,” Farrell said. “In (the adoption) case, this child has a chance of growing up in a more normal home situation” instead of being in the foster care system.
Farrell said the case illustrates how civil legal services benefit clients and taxpayers.
“When child protective services becomes involved, how much does that cost the state of Hawaii? Not only will this be good for the kid, but also this actually is a good investment in state funds,” he said.
In 2016, the Hawaii State Bar Association and the Hawaii Justice Foundation released a study that found that for every $1 that goes toward civil legal services, “Hawaii residents receive $6.35 of immediate and long-term financial benefits.”
Michelle Acosta, director of Volunteer Legal Services Hawaii, said the nonprofit is now looking at other ways to sustain its services.
“The community has been very supportive,” she said. “Hopefully the Legislature will restore the funding next year.”