The American legal system is one of humanity’s greatest achievements. But the system can be too complicated to navigate without legal assistance. Lawyers in the private bar are too often beyond the financial reach of too many Floridians. Low-income and impoverished Floridians can sometimes obtain help from legal aid programs or pro bono attorneys, but the resources for legal aid are limited, and we never seem able to close the justice gap. And so while we’d like to have more resources, in reality we are required to prioritize the most compelling cases, knowing that many who seek an attorney to help them achieve justice in their cases will go wanting for lack of resources.
One of the things Floridians can be immensely proud of is our state’s pioneering adoption of a program to collect interest on lawyer trust accounts to be used to help fund justice for low-income Floridians. Since the Supreme Court of Florida approved the IOTA program in 1981, these funds have been entrusted for administration by The Florida Bar Foundation. IOTA funds have been used, along with other funds that have been entrusted to the Foundation by the State of Florida, by the state and federal courts, and by private contributions, to provide crucial support to Florida’s legal aid system.
The first IOTA grants for legal assistance to the poor were awarded in 1982. The IOTA program will soon have been in place for 40 years. During these four decades, the Foundation has used IOTA and other funds to expand and improve representation and advocacy on behalf of low-income persons in civil legal matters, to improve the fair and effective administration of justice, and to promote public service among lawyers. In 2019, the Foundation surpassed $500 million in grants over the lifetime of our organization. The benefits to Floridians with compelling legal needs who have been helped as a result are incalculable.
We all have pledged “liberty and justice for all”. While we may never fully achieve that promise, the Foundation has had a crucial role in helping ensure that the promise of equal justice under law is fulfilled for many Floridians. It has been a privilege and a joy for me to serve on the Foundation’s board, and I am now greatly honored to assume the role of president of this great organization.
The mission of equal justice under law always faces challenges. Challenges in the coming years will be daunting. Because IOTA rates have been so low for so long, the Foundation would welcome and is actively engaged in developing other funding sources to advance the mission of justice. This and other challenges confront the Foundation as we continue to try to do the best we can to serve the mission with what we have to work with.
But the challenges we have can be faced with good cheer when we think of the results we achieve with what we can do. These results are immensely rewarding. Hearing the good work of the organizations we support is always the highlight of any Foundation board meeting. To those who serve on the board, and to our amazing Foundation staff, that is the reward which more than justifies the effort.