Sen. Bob Hertzberg plan to promote legal services for low-income Californians passes Assembly policy panel
Program would be funded by unclaimed funds to help public-interest law
SACRAMENTO – In an effort to help low-income Californians have greater access to equal justice, a plan by Sen. Bob Hertzberg to use unclaimed funds to help attorneys practice public-interest law today passed its first Assembly policy test.
“The cause is just and the price is right,” Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, said before the Assembly Judiciary Committee approved Senate Bill 134 on a bipartisan vote. “The impact on low-income communities having true access to justice is nothing less than extraordinary.”
Committee Chair Mark Stone agreed, praising Hertzberg for creating an innovative way to pay for legal aid to help working Californians.
“This is a clever funding source for a good program,” Stone said.
SB 134 would provide funding for a loan assistance program for attorneys committed to serving in the public interest by using unclaimed property in lawyer trust accounts.
Hertzberg, himself a lawyer, said today there is too little incentive to work in public-interest areas of law because the pay often is substantially lower than in private practice.
According to the American Bar Association, the average debt of a 2012 law school graduate was about $85,000 when graduating from a public school, and $122,000 from a private school. This level of debt makes it difficult for attorneys to pay off their debt, despite any interest in public service.
As a result, legal-service advocates, such as child support agencies, have found it increasingly difficult to keep talented attorneys.
Specifically, SB 134 would fund the Public Interest Attorney Loan Repayment Program by using unclaimed funds in lawyer trust accounts. While individuals have an indefinite right to claim their property, the property is transferred to the state General Fund after a general three-year hold period. A similar program in Oregon has collected more than $450,000 since 2010. It’s estimated California would have more funds because the state has far more lawyers.
California lawmakers created the Loan Repayment Program years ago to help repay the student loans of attorneys if they agreed to practice in certain public-interest areas of law, but the program has not been funded.
The Student Aid Commission is designated to administer the loan program, which would include establishing participant eligibility criteria and selecting participants. Participants are eligible for a maximum of $11,000 in four years of service.
Qualifying work areas include:
- A legal services organization that serves a clientele where more than 70 percent of clients are low-income persons, according to applicable federal income guidelines.
- A prosecuting attorney’s office.
- A child support agency office.
- A public defender’s office.
“Too often the Legislature grants rights without providing the tools to make those rights real,” Hertzberg said. “Families receive a Medi-Cal card, but can’t find a doctor to treat them. A mother can appeal to the family court, but no transcript is available. Tenant and wage right cases can be brought to court, but will face an unbalanced trial without access to legal assistance.
“We simply must find creative ways to support legal aid,” he said. “This is one of those ways.”
SB 134 is supported by California Attorneys, Administrative Law Judges and Hearing Officers in State Employment; the California State Conference of the NAACP; the California Student Aid Commission; the Legal Aid Association of California; the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office; the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund; and the University of California Hastings College of the Law.
SB 134 will next face review by the Assembly Appropriations Committee. A hearing date has not yet been set.
For more, including a Fact Sheet on SB 134, visit Hertzberg’s Web site at the address below.
Bob Hertzberg, chair of the Senate Committee on Governance and Finance, represents nearly 1 million San Fernando Valley residents of Senate District 18, which includes part of Burbank and the following communities in Los Angeles: Arleta, Granada Hills, Hansen Dam, Lake View Terrace, Mission Hills, North Hills, North Hollywood, part of Northridge, Pacoima, Panorama City, Sherman Oaks, Studio City, part of Sun Valley, Sylmar, Toluca Lake, Valley Glen, Valley Village, Van Nuys, the City of San Fernando and Universal City. See a district map HERE or at http://sd18.senate.ca.gov/district. After serving in the Assembly from 1996-2002, including two years as Speaker, Hertzberg invested in solar, wind and electric-car projects; and worked for structural changes in government through the Think Long Committee of California. More HERE or at www.senate.ca.gov/hertzberg
MEDIA CONTACT: Ray Sotero
Sen. Bob Hertzberg, Senate District 18
Capitol Building, Room 4038
Sacramento, Calif. 95814
(916) 651-4018 office; 916 834-1128 cell; or firstname.lastname@example.org