Free Legal Advice No Longer

8 March 2002

By Stentor Danielson
Managing Editor

Colgate students will no longer be provided with an hour of free legal consultation following a vote on Tuesday by the Student Senate. This ends a long-standing policy under which students could have the law firm of Nodell & Jones & Kendall bill the Student Government Association (SGA) for up to an hour of legal consultation per offense at a price of $75 per hour.

The legislation brought before the Senate said simply "The Colgate Student Government Association will no longer fund student consultations with lawyers." It passed by a vote of 22 to four, with three abstentions.

The policy was estimated to cost the SGA between $2,000 and $3,000 per year. The money came out of the $90 Student Activities Fee that every student pays as part of his or her tuition. That is the same fee that also pays for other Budget Allocation Committee (BAC) -funded organizations and events.

"We just shouldn't be paying that kind of money," Drake Hall Senator first-year Michael Apostolides, who brought the legislation before the Senate, said.

West Hall Senator first-year Matt Schiff disagreed, saying, "in terms of what they spend on speakers and banquets, it seemed pretty minuscule."

"If it's designated as Student Activities money, it should be going to student activities," SGA Treasurer senior Amy O'Hara said.

"That's money that could be spent elsewhere," SGA Elections Commissioner senior Steve Flannery said, suggesting that events like Spring Party Weekend could benefit from the extra funding.

Schiff said that the practice of paying for legal consultation was a great insurance policy for people who would not otherwise know where to turn. "Its not like were paying for a lawyer to defend someone," he said.

SGA members who supported the legislation expressed concern that, while the consultations had been intended to help students who had landlord disputes, many were taking advantage of it for DUI, fake IDs, speeding tickets and other criminal charges.

Apostolides said that the SGA should not be "babying kids around for doing something stupid like using a fake ID."

"The principle of me paying for someone's legal fees just because they got caught with a fake ID is pretty ridiculous," Flannery said.

Schiff characterized these arguments as "pretty weak."

I think students would be livid if they knew that their Student Activities Fee was being spent on legal consultations, SGA President senior Noah Schwarz said.

Lawyer Steve Jones of Nodell & Jones & Kendall said, "I have no problems with the decision the Student Government made. It's a business decision."

Although students can no longer get free legal consultation, Nodell & Jones & Kendall will remain attorneys for the SGA.

The policy was little known among members of the student body. Students generally found out by word-of-mouth or from their Dean, according to Flannery.

"I think everything goes through the grapevine," Director of Student Activities Marisela Rosas said.

The Senate had considered two previous versions of the legislation over the previous two weeks. The first limited the funding to noncriminal cases, while the second limited it to landlord disputes. Both of these versions were voted down.

At-large Senator sophomore Krista Finley said that the legislation was "fuzzy" in its earlier forms.

"I think the only reason it passed so quickly [on Tuesday] was because we had debated it for two weeks and they were long debates," SGA Vice President senior Erica Giers said.

Rosas said that, while she did not take a position on the policy, she advised Schwarz and Giers that it should cover either all types of consultation or none.

Associate Dean of the College Jim Terhune said that in 1993, when he was Director of Student Activities, he helped the SGA (which was then known as the Student Association) negotiate a new contract with Nodell & Jones & Kendall after the lawyer who had previously held the contract closed her practice. This contract expired five years ago, but the policy had continued to operate without a contract. Rosas said she told the SGA to either negotiate a new contract or end the policy.

Because there was no formal contract in place, it is not clear whether the policy will remain in effect for the remainder of the semester.

SGA members who supported the legislation said that student opinion was generally against the policy.

"I was torn at first but the more I heard the arguments on campus ... it persuaded me," Giers said.

Giers said that the SGA is making an effort to self-audit in order to cut down on poor uses of money, especially because the BACs budget is tight this year. Giers attributed this to an increase in the number of groups receiving BAC funding.

Giers pointed to legislation passed earlier Tuesday as another example of the SGA being more strict with its money. This legislation barred groups that receive BAC funding automatically from using more than $25 per person of their surplus funds on a social event.

Schiff said that it was "ridiculous" to let groups spend even that much on a social event, when "in theory, this [free legal consultation] could help out everyone."

Flannery said that, while there has been talk from the Executive Board about it, the self-audit "is more a general feeling than anything in particular."

O'Hara said that three years ago the BAC had a savings account of $60,000 to $100,000 as a "cushion" that could be drawn on to finance big events. That money was used up last year because of the growing number of student groups and an increase in student activism that led to larger requests from the BAC, she said.

"The BAC is essentially out of money for the semester," O'Hara said.

At the end of the year, O'Hara said that she plans to document BAC spending over the past three years and consider whether the BAC needs to put more strict limits on requests for money or raise the Student Activities fee.

While the Spring Party Weekend committee will not be receiving as much money as in the past, its budget has already been allocated and will therefore not be affected by the tight budget, O'Hara said.

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