It may become easier to find lawyers to represent special-needs kids if a Northeast Florida lawmaker’s bill is passed.
Sen. Aaron Bean (R-Fernandina Beach) wants taxpayers to cover court costs for their attorneys working pro bono.
Because special-needs child abuse or neglect victims often can’t rely on family help, the state keeps a registry of lawyers willing to work their cases and it covers all of their legal costs.
To help ease the budget burden, lawmakers since 2014 have allowed the Guardian Ad Litem program 15 days to find pro bono attorneys before selecting one from the state registry.
But it’s proven difficult to recruit lawyers to work for free.
Bean thinks he has a solution.
“The biggest hold up to pro bono attorneys are the court costs and fees,” he said.
Kids’ pro bono lawyers waive attorneys’ fees and agree to cover what are called “due process” costs, which include things like hiring expert witnesses.
Bean’s bill would mandate the state Justice Administrative Commission cover those costs up to $1,000 – something registry lawyers already get.
And Bean said that may actually cut costs because it could mean fewer lawyers’ charging the state for their services.
“Pro bono attorneys — they want to be there. They want to be there, they’re hungry to serve kids and the public, and they do a great job,” he said.
Bean said Florida Guardian Ad Litem Executive Director Alan Abramowitz approached him earlier this year about filing the legislation.
As Abramowitz told our partner WFSU, the bill would build on an ongoing state effort to connect low-income Floridians with legal representation. Recently, Guardian Ad Litem partnered with the Florida Bar Foundation and launched a website to match people with pro bono attorneys.
Abramowitz described an early success story of the project, a 17-year-old girl living with her grandmother.
“Her grandmother didn’t have the papers for guardianship, but she needed to be emancipated because she was getting ready to go to college. She needed the contract, grants, things like that to go to school. And, it was not that difficult for her to find an attorney,” he said.
The 2018 Florida legislative session starts in January.
Ryan Benk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at (904) 358 6319 or on Twitter at @RyanMichaelBenk.