Cuts in Legal Services Come at Perilous Times; States, Federal Lawmakers Slashing Funding, Inhibiting Access to Justice

August 8, 2011

by Jeremy Leaming

As an increasing number of economists suggests the nation’s wobbly economy may yet be heading into another recession, the effects of the Great Recession continue to do great damage to government funding of legal services.

The cuts to such services are coming at a time when an increasing number of people need them, whether they are homeowners trying to cope with foreclosure, renters struggling to deal with evictions, or workers fighting employment discrimination.  

On the federal level, the House Appropriations Committee is pushing for a 26 percent cut in funding to Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the nation’s largest provider of funding for civil legal services for low-income people. Cuts to LSC funding made by Congress in spring, along with cuts at the state level, have further hampered the ability of organizations to help low-income people access justice.   

For example, Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC) has announced that it “would close three of its branch offices and significantly reduce staff and services around the State due to severe funding cuts," the Xpress Mountain of Asheville and Western North Carolina reports. The shuttering of offices will affect more than “100,000 households – including more than 30,000 children,” who are eligible for the services.

Celeste Harris, chair of the LANC board of directors, told the Xpress Mountain:

New Jersey has also seen major slashes to its legal aid services. “From 2008 to 2010, Legal Services of New Jersey has seen its budget cut by 35 percent, from $72 million to $47 million, and lost nearly half of its staff attorneys as a result. In the 2011 budget, funding was slashed by another third; the 2012 budget signed by the governor included the additional $10 million cut,” Shore News Today reports.

The article notes that some lawmakers in the New Jersey Assembly are urging the governor to reconsider the $10 million cut.

State Sen. Jeff Van Drew said, “I’ve always been fiscally conservative, but without this funding there will be deeper cuts to an overburdened system. People cannot have their day in court on issues that affect their everyday lives without access to representation.”   

During a recent event hosted by ACS and the Center for American Progress on the growing need for legal services, ACS Executive Director Caroline Fredrickson noted that even at the current legal aid services funding rates, more than 80 percent of low-income Americans have no access to legal assistance.

“Sadly this crisis has been made only worse by the unemployment rate in this country and foreclosure problem,” Fredrickson said. “And at $284 per hour, which is the national average billing rate for attorneys, it is no surprise that many are priced out of access to justice.”

In a recent ACS Book Talk feature, Corey Shdaimah, a law professor at the University of Maryland, asks, “If we can shore up corporations and financial institutions, why can’t we shore up people, communities, and their faith in our legal system? In the U.S., access to justice without lawyers is largely a hollow promise.”