An advisory opinion from the Florida Supreme Court updates the IOTA program, the escrow interest program that was the first of its kind in the nation at a time.
And for the first time in more than 40 years, IOTA money will now fund legal services directed by attorneys to low-income litigants in Florida, rather than involving other causes.
The High Court’s opinion was based on a final report by the Task Force on the Distribution of IOTA Funds, which was presented to the country’s High Court.
But not all were on board.
In the dissenting opinion of former Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, 34 former Florida Bar presidents and 26 former Florida Bar Foundation presidents were quoted as opposed to the task force’s proposal.
9/5/18 – West Palm Beach – Florida Supreme Court Justice Jorge Labarga.
In the final report, which the Florida Supreme Court eventually passed, the task force recommended limiting the use of IOTA funds to providing or facilitating direct legal services to low-income beneficiaries.
It also recommended that the legal foundation and recipient organizations receiving IOTA funding be subject to various annual reporting requirements.
The reservations about the final report include strict new supervisory rules, which, according to Labarga, are not necessary and only increase costs.
In place of these new oversight rules, the state’s Supreme Court offered that the foundation could rely on annual audits already taking place on IOTA funds.
Labarga suggested that an audit on suspicious numbers of a grantee could allow a more thorough review of spending patterns rather than unnecessarily increasing the cost of compliance.
The former chief justices stated that the application of these new rules “would impede the provision of legal services to those in need”.
“Ironically,” said Labarga, “the mandate of the majority of the Foundation and the grant-making organizations imposes exhaustive, labor-intensive annual accounting, reporting and certification requirements that will certainly require the recruitment of qualified personnel capable of such tasks to meet, and at the same time imposes a 15% limit on the administrative burden. “
Nevertheless, a majority of the judges passed the new IOTA rules.
And the Florida Supreme Court put the rules into effect immediately.
Mayanne Downs, chair of the task force and former president of the bar, said it was important that the verdict be received before the end of the fiscal year.
Organizations receiving funding from the IOTA program in the next few months must follow the new guidelines.
Read the statement:
Now the money will be used to provide legal services led by attorneys for low-income litigants in Florida rather than other causes.
“That was the original purpose,” said Downs. “Most of the lawyers agree [the use of] IOTA funds and the Florida Supreme Court have now ensured that the bulk of that money will be used to provide legal advice to the poor. That is what this profession is about – providing legal services – and the money should be spent providing legal services. “
The Florida High Court formed the task force in October 2019 in response to Florida’s booming population, the statement said. As the population grew, so did the need of low-income citizens for direct civil law services. Nevertheless, the funds generated by the IOTA program have declined sharply in recent years.
Of Florida’s more than seven million households, over a million live in poverty, the judges wrote in the majority opinion. And at least four million residents have incomes below 125% of the federal poverty line, which means that they are eligible for the services of Sunshine State civil justice organizations.
“This money from the IOTA funds will be used to provide legal services and there will be reporting requirements and caps on overheads,” Downs said. “It’s hard to imagine anyone saying these three things are anything but an improvement.”
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