Last updated: September 24. 2013 12:00AM -
ANDREW M. SEDER aseder@timesleader.com

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HARRISBURG — As an attorney, Tarah Toohil saw first-hand the difficulties the poor and indigent sometimes had when it came to legal aid. Now as a state legislator, Toohil is making sure additional dollars will flow into a fund to help those people.

On Monday the state House voted 198-0 to approve Toohil’s bill that will increase the fees placed on civil court filings by $1 to help support the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network. The fees had totalled $3 and generated $11 million in revenue in fiscal 2011-12, Toohil, R-Butler Township, noted. The additional $1 is expected to generate $2.5 million annually.

The passage comes on the heels of another year in which the number of low-income individuals seeking legal assistance is increasing while funding has declined. Last fiscal year, Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network programs have reduced the number of cases from 100,000 just a couple of years ago to about 85,000 this past fiscal year, due to cuts in staffing and offices.

Samuel Milkes, the legal aid network’s executive director, said legal aid offices throughout the state, including North Penn Legal Services in Pittston, will be benefit. That program serves 18 counties. He applauded Toohil’s assistance.

“We’re representing fewer people today than just a few years ago,” Milkes said.

Many more people asking for help have to be turned away, he added, noting that once again this fiscal year there was no increase in the $2.5 million state appropriation for legal services. This follows a number of years in which state funding has been reduced — by as much as 10 percent — or has stayed flat.

The federal funding has remained flat during this same time period.

Milkes said legal aid is provided only in civil cases, such as mortgage foreclosures, divorces, child support and domestic violence. He said the additional funding “will make a real difference getting services to people that we might not have been able to.”

The bill now moves on to the Republican-controlled state Senate, and Toohil said she’s already reached out to Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Willow Grove, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to express her hope for a speedy passage.

“I’m very confident this will go through, and I’m hopeful it happens as soon as possible,” Toohil said. “Currently, thousands of disadvantaged citizens who qualify for legal services are being turned away due to insufficient funding. Each day this bill is not signed into law is another day they are denied equal assistance with civil matters, including domestic violence and eviction cases.”

If the state Senate approves the bill and the governor signs it, it would become the second piece of legislation Toohil was a primary sponsor of that would become law. The first pertained to the reform of the juvenile justice system.

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