Investing in the Community: Marion County Bar Association Civil Legal Aid Fund

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On June 13, 2017 the Marion County Bar Association (MCBA) unanimously decided to create a fund in support of civil legal aid services to the community. The MCBA is the first local voluntary bar association in Central Florida to create a fund to assist with the sustainability of civil legal aid.

Several years ago, past MCBA president, Renee Thompson, appointed a Legal Aid Committee made up of Dan Hightower, Chairman, Judge Ray McNeal, retired, and Greg Harrell, past MCBA president, to study their idea of creating a fund or foundation to benefit the local community. The committee worked closely with Barbara Fitos, Director of the Community Foundation Ocala Marion County, to work through the details of creating such a fund. During the final meeting, Ms. Fitos addressed the local bar and expressed her pleasure in partnering with them for such a cause.

The fund will be created and managed by the Community Foundation Ocala Marion County, and the growth on the principal will be disbursed annually to the only local legal aid organization, Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida (CLSMF). Through this fund, MCBA will begin directing donations from practicing or retiring members of the legal community or in honor of deceased members and other contributions toward a meaningful place. This support will further access to critical legal services which help residents obtain and maintain the basic necessities of life: food, shelter, healthcare, safety and education.

After the vote, Kimberly Sanchez, CLSMF’s Executive Director, spoke to the local bar association and thanked them for this source of supplemental funding for the local CLSMF office. She commended MCBA for being a pioneer in this effort of community support and went on to say that she and other directors of legal aid organizations will challenge more local bar associations in the state to create similar Legal Aid Funds in their counties using the Marion County Bar Association Legal Aid Fund as a model.

CLSMF is currently the only nonprofit law firm providing free legal services in Marion County. The organization impacted nearly 4,000 people in the area in the last 18 months, however, there are 77,000 residents that are eligible for services. Eligibility for legal aid is based on income, for example, a family of four would be supported with no more than 30,000 in income annually. The impact of such a fund as created by MCBA will generate extended resources to help even more in need of these critical services.

CLSMF will be holding a reception in conjunction with the Marion County Bar Association and the Community Foundation Ocala Marion County in September 2017 to kick off the new funding initiative.