Help Legal Assistance: defending those in need


By Barb Arland-Fye

DAVENPORT – HELP Legal Assistance recently celebrated 40-plus years of providing equal access to justice for individuals, and a diocesan priest and a Catholic businessman were instrumental in its creation. Msgr. Marvin Mottet and the late Frank Rhomberg, who left his business career to assist the priest in the Davenport Diocese’s social action office, helped secure funding to establish HELP Legal Assistance in 1970. In fact, this nonprofit agency was founded four years before Legal Services Corp., the national nonprofit that distributes grants to 136 independent legal aid programs including Iowa Legal Aid.

On April 8, St. Ambrose University in Davenport hosted and co-sponsored a daylong Equal Justice Summit to celebrate the work of HELP Legal Assistance. Annually, the Davenport-based agency assists nearly 2,000 clients with civil legal issues involving adequate food, shelter, safety and income, director Janelle Swanberg said. The nonprofit serves people in Scott and Clinton counties, including senior citizens. It serves senior citizens only in Muscatine County.

Fulfilling HELP’s mission is challenging because of the current economic situation and a growing demand for services, supporters say. Legal Services Corp. is taking a $15.8 million cut in funding as a result of the 2011 budget Congress approved last week. That means a 4 percent cut in funding for local legal aid programs, said Steve Barr, Legal Services Corp.’s media relations director. For fiscal year 2011, Iowa will receive $2.63 million in total funding, a reduction of $109,630 from 2010, he said.


Iowa Legal Aid distributes that money to 10 offices in Iowa including the one in Davenport and one each in Iowa City and Ottumwa. The state nonprofit, with a budget of roughly $8 million, also relies on interest income from the Iowa-based Lawyer Trust Account Commission, a state grant and other sources, Iowa Legal Aid Executive Director Dennis Groenenboom said. The loss in interest income in the trust account is estimated at $600,000 from two years ago. And proposals to cut the state grant range from $115,000 to $930,000. Those cuts impact Iowa Legal Aid sub-grantees.

“We’re seeing reduced staff at a time there’s increased need,” Groenenboom said. “Our request for assistance from clients who are facing foreclosure of their homes is up 200 percent from two years ago.”

Swanberg, an attorney who’s worked at HELP Legal Aid for 32 years, said the agency may be forced to reduce its seven-member staff because of funding cuts.

“We have been in deficit spending for the past two years. Whether we can get through another year remains to be seen,” said Swanberg, whose office also depends on volunteer attorneys and paralegals. Still, her office is committed to doing the best it can with limited resources. Helping the poor was ingrained in her as a child, she said. “I always thought that it was the highest calling of a person of faith.”

Like Swanberg, Groenen­boom is committed to legal assistance to the poor, having served 33 years with Iowa Legal Aid.  “I believe that we have a great court system, but it only works if the most vulnerable have access to it.” By helping people in domestic violence situations, you improve the likelihood of the success of the children in that household. By helping people dealing with foreclosures, you ensure they have a place to live, he said. “You’re helping people in very dramatic ways to improve their lives.”

Summary of Judge Pratt’s keynote address

Chief District Judge Robert Pratt of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa gave the keynote address for the Equal Justice Summit held April 8 at St. Ambrose University in Davenport. We share a summary of his speech.

Judge Pratt, a legal aid lawyer early in his career, observed that 100 years ago few people in the United States — with the exception of the very well off — saw any need to access the legal system.

With numerous immigrants arriving in the U.S., private groups and clubs formed that saw a need for some legal advice for the newcomers. But these charitable groups existed largely in urban areas, meaning very few people who needed civil or criminal justice help received it. In 1919, Reginald Heber Smith received a grant from the Carnegie Foundation to research the legal system and its effect on the poor. Smith’s subsequent book, “Justice and the Poor” challenged the legal profession to ensure that access to justice was available to all without regard to ability to pay.  

The American Bar Association (ABA) responded by creating the Standing Committee on Legal Aid, later changed to the Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants to ensure continued ABA involvement in the delivery of legal assistance to the poor.  Many state and local bars responded by sponsoring new legal aid programs, Judge Pratt said.

But, he noted, “Delivery of legal services to the poor and the middle class has never happened in a vacuum.” While the advent of the progressive income tax, the Great Depression, World War II and the development of a middle class led to a model for delivery of legal services, an effective delivery system was lacking. Such a system emerged in the mid-1960s, and the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 made federal money available for legal services to the poor. Leadership of ABA in part helped secure these funds, he said.

The late 1960s and early 1970s were a time of substantial accomplishment for legal services programs. Major Supreme Court victories included cases involving pre-judgment garnishment of wages, the definition of  “parent” in granting benefits to dependent children, and a welfare recipient’s right to be afforded hearing and notice before losing his or her benefits. Legal services lawyers worked with Congress in getting legislation enacted to improve the lives of economically vulnerable people including the food stamp program, the Supplemental Security Income program, Medicare, Medicaid, truth-in-lending and other consumer legislation and nursing home protections.

Hill-Burton hospital legislation, which provided for uncompensated health care treatment, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and other significant legislative and administrative changes that today we take for granted were brought about at least in part by legal aid advocacy, the judge said.

But support for the program “seems to wax and wane depending upon the political winds of the day. The present time is no exception.”

In the past, private lawyers were not always supportive of legal aid. Today they are some of its biggest supporters “in part because they have a better understanding of the necessity of the work that needs to be done and because, frankly, funding is at such atrocious levels and the demand and need for services is so high,” Judge Pratt said.

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