Another Challenging Fiscal Year For Some Iowa Legal Nonprofits

Jul 7, 2016

Nearly $240,000 in grants will be given to 14 Iowa legal non-profits that assist low-income people. This funding comes from the state's Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Account program, which has suffered extreme decreases over the past decade.

So while this year's grants total $28,000 more than what was distributed in 2015-16, the funding is still less than what some legal service organizations say they need. 

“Recent data shows that we turn away or underserve about 10,000 people who contact us each year,” says Dennis Groenenboom, executive director of Iowa Legal Aid.

ILA serves low-income Iowans in all 99 counties. It receives a large portion of its annual budget from IOLTA. 

This year IOLTA granted ILA $138,878.* The money goes to staffing the organization's 10 regional offices and to funding a legal aid hotline for older Iowans. 

When IOLTA was at it's zenith in 2008 and 2009, ILA was granted $762,030 in both years.

Groenenboom adds that while available revenue both at the state and federal levels has decreased, the need for legal assistance has amplified due to the growing number of people who live in poverty.

“For lower-income people (legal aid) access is often needed to address issues of basic necessity of life and safety,” he says. “There are many people who need assistance with critical legal problems that affect their safety, their shelter, other basic necessities of life that we are not able to serve.”

IOLTA is funded through the interest of monies held by attorneys. By law, payments such as retainers must be placed in separate trusts. Any interest accrued is turned over to IOLTA, which distributes those funds to organizations like ILA.  

Paul H. Wieck from the Iowa Judicial Branch's Office of Professional Regulation says the depletion of IOLTA money can be traced to two main causes.

“First, interest rates payable by banks and credit unions on trust accounts have been comparatively low,” Wieck explained via email. “Second, the average balances in trust accounts across the state also have been comparatively low, likely due at least in part to fewer real estate transactions being handled by Iowa attorneys.”

Below are this year's IOLTA grant recipients. 

Iowa Legal Aid, $138,878*

$121,298—This funding goes to staffing at ILA's 10 regional offices. ILA provides civil case assistance to low income Iowans.

$17,580—This funding goes to ILA's Legal Hotline for Older Iowans.

The Iowa State Bar Association Public Service Project, $26,646— The project's Access to Justice Commission is expected to have a positive impact on the financial resources, pro bono services, and other support for legal services for low income Iowans.

Polk County Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project, $26,297—The project is a volunteer lawyer referral for Polk County's low income community.

Clinical Law Program, Drake University Law School and University of Iowa College of Law Legal Clinics, $7,314—This clinical law program allows upper-level law students to intern with legal assistance providers around the state.

Legal Aid Society of Story County, $7,034—The society provides civil legal assistance to low income Iowans in Story County.

Muscatine Legal Services, $5,745—Muscatine Legal Services provides civil legal assistance to low income Iowans in Muscatine County. 

Civil Legal Assistance Fund, Second Judicial District, $5,018—The fund provides civil legal assistance to low income parents or children in north central Iowa. The funds aids those involved dissolution of marriage or modification cases in which other legal assistance is not available.

Civil Legal Assistance Fund, Third Judicial District, $5,018—The fund provides legal assistance to low-income parents or children in northeastern Iowa. The fund aids those involved in dissolution of marriage or modification cases in which other legal assistance is not available.

Iowa Justice for Our Neighbors, $5,018—Iowa Justices for Our Neighbors represents low-income immigrants involved in removal proceedings and other immigration law matters.

Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault, $4,423—The coalition provides legal aid to student victims of sexual assault. It also provides attorney training specific to the issues of sexual assault on Iowa youth.

Kids First Law Center, $2,662—The center is based in Johnson and Linn counties. It serves children in high conflict divorce and custody cases when their parents cannot afford counsel for them.

Appanoose County Bar Association, $2,509—The Appanoose County Bar Association will use the funds for civil legal assistance for economically disadvantaged individuals in Appanoose and Monroe counties. 

Know Your Constitution Committee of the Young Lawyers Division, The Iowa State Bar Association, $1,854—Know Your Constitution Program provides education to Iowa high school students about the United States Constitution.

Sioux County Low Fee Panel, Sioux County Bar Association, $1,582—The panel provides civil legal assistance for economically disadvantaged individuals in the Sioux County area.

*An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that Iowa legal Aid received $238,878 this year.