Benavides v. Benavides
In Benavides v. Benavides, 11 Conn. App. 150, 526 A.2d 536, 537 (Conn. App. Ct. 1987), the plaintiff requested attorney's fees in connection with her claim for child support and custody of her children. Ms. Benavides was represented by Connecticut Legal Services, Inc., a nonprofit organization. Id. at 537. She claimed attorney's fees in the amount of $ 2,100, which the trial court found to be justified. Id.
The court reduced the amount awarded, however, because her counsel was employed by a nonprofit organization. Id.
The Appellate Court of Connecticut reversed, finding that the criteria set forth in the statute authorizing attorney's fees made "no provision for any consideration of the status of the legal services rendered, be it private counsel or nonprofit counsel . . . ." Id. at 538.
The trial court, in focusing on the "nonprofit status" of counsel, introduced a factor not contained in the statute. Id.
The appellate court noted that the trial court, "in exercise of its inherent equitable powers may consider factors other than those enumerated in the statutes if such factors are appropriate for a just and equitable resolution" of the dispute. Benavides v. Benavides, 11 Conn. App. 150, 526 A.2d 536, 538 (Conn. App. Ct. 1987). In that case, however, the trial court made no effort to show how a reduction of fees solely because of counsel's nonprofit status was appropriate. Id. at 539.
Accordingly, the appellate court found the reduction of the fee to be arbitrary and erroneous and ordered that the case be remanded to award the full amount of counsel fees. Id.
In Benavides, the Appellate Court of Connecticut noted additional policy reasons for allowing attorney's fees for nonprofit counsel:
We are aware that indigents are represented by legal services attorneys in a large number of family relations matters. It would be unreasonable to allow a losing party in a family relations matter to reap the benefits of free representation to the other party. A party should not be encouraged to litigate under the assumption that no counsel fee will be awarded in favor of the indigent party represented by public legal services . . . or as in this case, that a reasonable fee will be discounted for the same reason. "Put in another way, the public should be relieved from the financial burden of obtaining an indigent plaintiff's divorce or successfully defending against a husband's complaint, to the extent that the husband is able to pay all or part of her attorney's fees. The taxpayer has an interest in recovering where possible a portion of the costs in these situations."
An award of counsel fees that does not discriminate against nonprofit legal service entities will encourage nonprofit counsel to expend its resources in the representation of those clients who are unable to afford private counsel in disputed child custody and child support enforcement litigation. The purposes of such acts as the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act in Connecticut, are advanced and are made more available to the poor where there is an expectancy that the nonprofit legal services will recoup at least part of its resources through an award of counsel fees to its client. Furthermore, a realization that the opposing party, although poor, has access to an attorney and that an attorney's fee may be awarded deters noncompliance with the law and encourages settlements.11 Conn. App. at 154-55 .