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Southern Legal Counsel Fights for the Powerless

Southern Legal Counsel Fights for the Powerless

by Bradley Osburn

Southern Legal Counsel (SLC) has been a leading name in civil law for 35 years. The Gainesville-based, five-attorney, not-for-profit firm operates statewide in an effort to keep government accountable and give a voice to those who wouldn’t normally have access to expensive legal services.

Attorneys Jodi Siegel, Niel Chonin, Gabriela Ruiz and SLC Development Director Nell Page took the time to sit down with the Business Report in their offices, just off of 34th Street and 12th Avenue, to talk about what sets SLC apart from other firms, and why it’s important to represent the underprivileged.

SLC began its life at the UF College of Law in 1977 under the guidance of attorneys Jon L. Mills and Albert J. Hadeed, with the mission to represent those in the greatest need of civil legal assistance. The firm battled on many fronts, including environmental and disability cases.

Today, that profile has evolved to include students, nursing home patients, children with special needs, homeless persons and public housing tenants. In addition, SLC looks for solutions to broader problems by focusing on trying to change the systems that the Florida government has in place or ensuring that they’re followed and enforced the way they should be, according to Chonin. One case may involve many plaintiffs, or several advocacy groups all moving toward a common goal.

“One of the key things we do is keep government entities accountable.” he said “A democracy needs everyone to have equal access to the laws, rules, regulations and the justice system.”

In that vein, SLC takes on a lot of due process cases, wherein a plaintiff has a grievance against a government agency for the failure to follow its own procedures. For example, the government can’t reduce a recipient’s allowance of food stamps without legitimate reason and sufficient notice.

SLC’s latest initiative is a legal battle over the quality of education in Florida. Chonin said that SLC is trying to hold government boards of education accountable through the application of the Florida Constitution.

“The Constitution says they have a paramount duty to provide an efficient safe, secure, uniform, high quality, free public school system, through the laws that they pass,” Chonin said. “And we intend to prove that the Constitution is being violated.”

SLC, in collaboration with concerned parents and two nonprofits – Fund Education Now and Citizens for Strong Schools — see a drain on the public school system by government-subsidized charter and religious schools. These generally for-profit schools often aren’t held to the same standards as public schools. On top of that, Florida also has a notorious initiative whereby it takes funding from schools that score low on standardized tests, rather than investing more into tutoring programs and teachers.

SLC litigates on a more personal level as well, like in cases where special needs children aren’t getting the proper support, such as sign-language interpreters. They recently fought to reduce drainage of the Silver Springs Basin by a rancher in the area who wanted millions of gallons of water for his ranch every day.

SLC operates off of grants, donations, and prevailing party fees, whereby a lawsuit victor is entitled to the recovery of attorney’s fees and costs, Siegel said. The firm receives no funding from the state, she said, because it’s very difficult to turn around and sue the state with its own funds. SLC has no fee structure, so it very rarely makes any revenue from clients, which it finds by word of mouth, referral and being aware of trends that might need addressing. SLC also takes a small number of pro bono cases every year.

 

In order to raise money and awareness for their cases, SLC also engages in annual community involvement initiatives. On Oct. 28, SLC will put on a fundraiser at the Hippodrome State Theatre featuring a silent auction from 6pm-7pm and live music from 7pm-9pm by Orlando band Johnny Dee and the Starlights, performing “The End of Innocence: Music from the ‘50s and the ‘60s.” SLC is working with band leader Andy Matchett to match each song with a civil rights issue that was prominent at the time. Tickets are on sale at the Hippodrome for $25, and $10 for students.

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