by Clark Taylor
Much has been written about the tough budgetary climate that the federal government and state governments have been struggling with in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Severe budget cuts have meant fewer benefits for the unemployed and less money to fight diseases.
Not immune to the budget cuts, and no less significant, is the state of funding for legal aid for the poor.
The largest provider of legal aid in the country is the Legal Services Corporation (LSC). Founded in 1974, LSC provides grants to local legal aid organizations nationwide to provide legal services for those who would not otherwise be able to afford representation. These services ensure that our justice system works for those most vulnerable, and, as the number of families in poverty has steadily increased the last few years, providing adequate representation for those in need is now more essential than ever.
Last month the House of Representatives passed a bill which would provide LSC with $328 million for FY 2013. This number would represent $20 million less than LSC received last year – which, adjusted for inflation, was the lowest funding levels LSC had ever received. The number, however, was a marked improvement over two other alternatives: Rep. Lynn Westmoreland’s (R-Ga.) proposal to cut LSC funding to $200 million and Rep. Austin Scott’s (R-Ga.) proposal to eliminate federal funding of LSC entirely.
These draconian cuts follow on the heels of a report by the World Justice Project in which the United States ranked 21 in the ‘Access to Justice’ category and 20 out of 23 countries in its income group in that category. The report continues that, in access to counsel in civil cases, the United States ranks 50 and only outperforms Italy, Croatia, and Poland amongst high-income nations. In terms of providing access to counsel among disadvantaged groups, the United States ranks 21.
In light of these cuts and proposed cuts in funding, local legal aid organizations have been forced to adapt to an environment of shrinking resources. In West Virginia, the attorney general’s office was forced to step in and provide a $1 million grant to keep legal aid offices open in two counties. In Illinois, the state Supreme Court increased the attorney registration fee, with the increased revenue earmarked for legal aid services. In Puerto Rico, the situation is even grimmer. The LSC budget agreed to in the House would reduce Puerto Rico’s funding by 32 percent and is estimated to result in a drop of at least seven thousand cases – many of which are related to unlawful evictions and issues surrounding child custody.
With so many Americans’ legal needs going unmet, this sad state of affairs has been deemed a ‘crisis’ by the likes of NPR. Another traditional source of revenue for legal aid has been trust funds set up by state legal aid organizations for their clients. In addition to the budget crunch from national and state legislatures, historically low interest rates have led to decreased funding from these trust funds.
Even in times of budgetary crunches, some states are finding a way to ensure that legal aid remains at healthy funding levels. Earlier this year in New York, state funding for legal aid doubled from the previous year up to $25 million. Federal expenditures for New York legal aid was expected to drop by $7.5 million and the New York City Council cut the amount it granted to legal aid by 50 percent. In a speech earlier this year, New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman noted, ‘"The courts are the emergency rooms of our society. The most intractable social problems find their way to our doors in great and increasing numbers. And more and more of the people who come into our courts each day are forced to do so without a lawyer."