LQ Funding Civil Justice

March 6, 2006
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The ninth annual Access To Justice Campaign held its West Michigan corporate reception recently with the hope of raising enough dollars this year to continue assisting low-income residents with their civil legal problems.

The State Bar of Michigan, the Michigan State Bar Foundation and providers of legal services throughout the state direct the ATJ Campaign each year, which helps to fund local entities like Legal Aid of West Michigan, the Michigan Migrant Legal Assistance Project and the Grand Rapids Bar Association's LegalAssistanceCenter

"The corporate reception is geared toward reaching not only West Michigan attorneys, but extending the appeal out to West Michigan businesses to see if we can get them to contribute toward providing free civil legal aid for the poor," said Bruce Courtade, a partner at Rhoades McKee, member of the State Bar's Board of Commissioners, former regional ATJ Campaign chairman, and a host committee member for the current drive.

"Our expectation is most of the money raised here will stay in West Michigan, but if somebody wants to designate it somewhere else they can. Most people, though, end up sending in their donation to the Michigan State Bar Foundation with a designation that it goes to legal aid. The reason they do that is for tax reasons," he added.

Making a contribution to the foundation provides a donor with a charitable gift that can be deducted on an income tax return.

The State Bar reported that last year's campaign drew 1,753 contributions with pledges totaling just under $1 million, about $225,000 more than the average that was given in previous drives. The 2005 total pushed the ATJ Fund past the $6 million mark for all campaigns.

West Michigan law firms gave more than $200,000 to the 2005 campaign, with the biggest contributions coming from Howard and Howard, Law Weathers & Richardson, Mika Meyers Beckett and Jones, Miller Johnson Snell and Cummiskey, Varnum Riddering Schmidt and Howlett, and Warner Norcross and Judd.

"I applaud the leadership shown by ATJ donors who support the Bar's efforts to ensure that civil justice is available to all Michigan citizens, regardless of their ability to pay," said Thomas Cranmer, State Bar of Michigan president.

Jon Anderson, a real estate attorney with Varnum, Riddering, Schmidt and Howlett, and Aquinas College President Harry Knopke are the honorary co-chairs for the local corporate drive, which raised more than $156,000 from businesses and law firms at its first event two years ago.

The Paul Goebel Group, which markets business, commercial and professional insurance plans, led corporate giving in 2004 with a $25,000 contribution, one of the major donations made that year throughout the state. In all, over 50 businesses and law firms took part in the initial local event.

The 2004 statewide ATJ Campaign raised $731,000 from 1,471 donors, and through 2004, more than $5 million in donations have gone into the fund since the drive's inception nine years ago.

But the ATJ campaign is a bit different from other charitable fundraisers, as it doesn't really have a stop date.

"It runs until there is no longer a need. This is an ongoing need. We would ideally like to get an endowment that would fully fund all of the legal aid programs in the state of Michigan, and that is the long-term goal. But, for now, we're just trying to grow the endowment," said Courtade.

"I think the latest stat I saw was for every $100 that the federal government designates for medical care, there is one-tenth of one cent given to legal aid," he said.

The state bar foundation distributed $846,495 in cash contributions and pledges to legal aid programs across the state in 2004 and $632,680 in 2005. The funds are used to help the poor with civil legal cases, such as assisting families in their fights against eviction notices and helping women who have been abused or are embroiled in child-custody battles.

"The program covers the basic needs for people who don't have enough money to afford legal representation," said Courtade. "This has nothing to do with criminal litigation; it's all civil cases."

Businesses interested in making a tax-deductible contribution to the Michigan State Bar Foundation can do so online at www.atjfund.org or by calling (800) 968-1442. An online donation can be designated to a specific legal aid program.

"There is such a dramatic need that I don't know if we ever will be able to raise enough money that we could officially end the campaign," said Courtade. "It is an ongoing effort to fund legal aid throughout the state of Michigan, and our campaign is one that is unmatched by any State Bar in the country."     LQ

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