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Poor economy impacts Bradenton law firm with needy clients

BRADENTON -- It might be an immigration issue.

An impending eviction for an elderly couple.

Or protection for a battered wife.

If Luz Corcuera knew someone in such circumstances and they needed legal assistance, she’d send them to Gulfcoast Legal Services on Old Main Street.

It’s been in Bradenton since 1981 and is part of a regional firm with offices in five cities offering services to people at the poverty level.

“It’s the only place that will see you without having to pay exorbitant fees,” said Corcuera, the program director for Healthy Start Coalition of Manatee County. “I don’t know any other place we can send people.”

That may change.

Funding that enabled the firm -- with offices also in Clearwater, Sarasota, St. Petersburg and Tampa -- to work with poor clientele has been significantly impacted by the economy.

“It’s a confluence of bad news,” said John Cunningham, the firm’s executive director in St. Petersburg. “People who didn’t need legal aid need it now ... and funding has dropped off.”

The most striking example is the decline in grant money from the Florida Bar Foundation, which gets its resources for its general support fund from interest on trust accounts.

It once had $40 million but that has dwindled to $6 million.

“The foundation reserves have dried up,” Cunningham said.

One manifestation of that downturn is the loss of $434,000 earmarked for the Bradenton office.

“We’d also been receiving a $15,000 grant for representing seniors in foreclosures and that was not renewed,” he said. “We also had funding from the Department of Justice, but that was discontinued.”

Gov. Rick Scott’s veto of $1 million for legal aid statewide was yet another setback.

Because of the fallout, Gulfcoast Legal Services, which started 2011 with 20 staff attorneys at its five offices, will end the year with 13.

The Bradenton staff will be reduced from seven to 3.5 people.

“We’ve had to cut two part-time contract attorneys, who were doing housing cases and foreclosures,” Cunningham said. “We will also lose a family law attorney and our legal secretary at the end of the year. It will leave us with two attorneys, a paralegal and a part-time receptionist.”

Approximately 600 cases were handled at the Bradenton office, but Cunningham anticipates that number declining below 500.

“We’re hoping to make it up by using pro bono volunteer attorneys and law students and other lay volunteers,” he said.

Lisa Murray, the managing attorney for the Bradenton office, is apprehensive about the cutbacks.

“It’s tough to not be able to help those who need it and you worry,” she said. “If it’s a victim of domestic violence, or low-income foreclosure clients, our capacity to assist that victim is going down.

“There may be cases where ... the best I can do is give them advice.”

Which greatly troubles Luz Corcuera.

“It affects families we serve,” she said. “It’s very sad.”

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055.

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