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DOWNTOWN : Asian Legal Center Faces Possible Cuts

January 09, 1994|IRIS YOKOI

The Asian Pacific American Legal Center may have to lay off six of its eight full-time staff members and turn away some poor clients if its funding for free legal services is severely reduced.

The center at 1010 S. Flower St., the largest legal center in the nation for Asian and Pacific Americans, is one of 125 legal services statewide that receive funding from a lawyers' trust fund account for poverty law services.

The interest from the trust fund has been a major source of money for legal services for the poor since 1981; during the 1992-93 fiscal year, it provided $22.7 million to legal agencies statewide.

But because of the recession and lower interest rates, the funds have been reduced by almost $8 million in the current fiscal year and face an even larger cut in fiscal 1994, according to officials at the State Bar, which administers the fund.

In addition, Assemblyman Ray Haynes (R-Temecula) has proposed legislation to divert the trust fund money from legal services to help crime victims and keep county probation camps open. His bill is still in committee.

Opponents of Haynes' proposal argue that, although crime victims and probation camps are worthwhile causes, legislators should not reduce free legal services, which help abused children, defrauded senior citizens and other victims.

The Asian Pacific American Legal Center, which has received $150,000 to $250,000 annually from the trust fund over the past five years, may lose as much as 75% in fiscal 1994. The center, which serves clients in five Asian languages and in Spanish, already had to deal with a 33% reduction this fiscal year.

Since slashing the trust fund will also affect larger organizations, such as the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, the center stands to see a further drop in funds because it often receives money from such organizations for various programs.

"We're particularly hurt because we get very little government funding . . . less than 10% of our funding is government-based," said Stewart Kwoh, the center's executive director.

What is ironic, Kwoh said, is that while the recession is forcing cuts in the fund, the economic downturn also increases the number of people in need of free legal services. Kwoh's center, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary, has seen a steady increase in clients over the past decade and last year served 14,000 people.

In the worst-case scenario, the center may have to lay off most of its full-time staff and depend on part-time and volunteer attorneys, which could drastically limit its service to poor clients, Kwoh said.

Center staff said they expect to find out in the spring how much they will receive in fiscal 1994.

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