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Legal Aid Funding Dwindles As Recession Factors Mount

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A local non-profit that provides legal services to poor New Yorkers says the recession is hitting them hard, and could limit a significant number of cases from being heard. NY1's Lily Jamali filed the following report.

For someone's whose home is currently in foreclosure, Jacqueline Tamaklo seems remarkably optimistic.

Tamaklo bought a house in the Arverne section of Queens in 2006, expecting to pay roughly $2,500 a month on her mortgage. But, she says, she was misled. She admits she didn't read the mortgage documents and found herself owing a thousand dollars more every month.

The year after the purchase, she fell behind on payments. Worried she would lose her home, she went looking for help.

"I went through looking for lawyers, charging me and nobody did anything. I was on my last leg," said Tamaklo. "My last hope when I ran into her and she said I'll take on your case."

"She" is Sumani Lanka, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society's foreclosure unit in Queens. Lanka says she has her hands full right now, with the recession hitting homeowners as hard as it has.

"The caseload is pretty tremendous. We can't even begin to take most of the cases that come to us," said Lanka.

And things aren't expected to get any better any time soon. A major chunk of Legal Aid's funding for civil cases comes from something called the Interest on Lawyer Account Fund, an account that attorneys across the state put money into during certain business transactions. The interest paid on the account helps fund Legal Aid, and groups like it.

But with interest rates dropping and fewer transactions taking place, the fund is generating far less cash -- down from more than $2.5 million last July to around $500,000 today.

"We're clearly going to be able to serve fewer clients," said Legal Aid Society Attorney-in-Chief Steven Banks. "As it is, we're turning away eight of every nine clients who seek our help, and that doesn't include those without the wherewithal to come to our offices."

Since the recession kicked in last year, there's been a 16 percent increase in clients seeking domestic violence help, a 40 percent increase in health-related cases, a 30 percent increase in employment-related cases and a 20 percent increase in housing cases.

Tamaklo says without the help of Legal Aid, her foreclosure would have been a certainty, not just a possibility.

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