JACKSONVILLE – A lack of family law trial lawyers in the Jacksonville area is putting a strain on one organization seeking to provide assistance for cases involving individuals with limited income and special needs.
Jacksonville Area Legal Aid (JALA) exists to provide representation to those in need in order to lift the monetary and discriminatory burden that often follows legal situations.
“They come for everything. Every kind of legal problem,” Jennifer Jerome, JALA family law division chief, told the Florida Record. “There’s definitely a huge call for family law, but that’s just because family law is something that everyone might be involved in at some point, based on our divorce rates and society.”
While the need for family law attorneys remains steady, the resources have not. With only one attorney on staff for family law cases, JALA is only able to accept family law cases that include physical and sexual violence.
“Unfortunately, we do not have funding to serve general family law cases, due to the economic crisis” Jerome said.
In 2015, JALA represented 83 cases involving victims, 59 survivors seeking protection against violence and 11 survivors dealing with the immigration law, according to its annual report. JALA does not receive funds from the state of Florida or the city of Jacksonville. Florida is among only three states in the nation that provides no funding for civil legal aid.
Previously, JALA received funding through grants and interest on attorney trust accounts. With plunging interest rates and a lack of available grants, the organization is now attempting to balance the same workload with fewer resources.
“There’s a need for attorneys; the problem is there’s not enough funding for attorneys,” Jerome said. “Then you have to try to match the great need with the limited resources that are available, even in the private sector.”
A lack of resources means the court systems are strained by those attempting to navigate the legal system, unrepresented.
Each year, JALA turns down thousands of family law cases, according to JALA director Kathy Para. The organization refers those they are unable to accept to free clinics and other pro-bono family law trial lawyers.
Para said attendance at clinics hosted by JALA’s family law group has increased from 311 attendees in 2011 to more than 800 this year. Clinics allow attendees to speak with attorneys and learn from clinic topic discussions, which generally include issues related to childcare, divorce and custody.
Para and her team are actively seeking trial lawyers in the Jacksonville area to attend upcoming clinics in Duval, Clay and Nassau counties.