Civil legal aid for the indigent is on the congressional chopping block, with the House Appropriations Committee's proposing a 26 percent cut to the Legal Services Corporation, a decrease that would bring the agency’s funding to its lowest level since 1999, The National Law Journal reports.
John Constance, LSC's director of government relations and public affairs, estimates that such cuts would require programs to turn away some 235,000 people.
"Today's cuts will decimate the operations of the local legal aid providers that normally step in to help,” said American Bar Association President Stephen Zack in a statement.
During a recent panel discussion on closing the justice gap, American Constitution Society Executive Director Caroline Fredrickson pointed out that, even at current 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 the foreclosure problem,” she 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.”
Center for Law and Social Policy Executive Director Alan Houseman urged a continued fight to increase federal funding for legal services, noting that both President Obama and members of Congress from both parties have explicitly supported increased funding for LSC.
In a Center for American Progress white paper released on the day of the panel discussion, Houseman calls for LSC funding to increase to $600 million within the next four years, noting that in spite of local and state sources, "increased federal funding will remain essential." The proposed funding cuts now being considered would cut funding from $404 million to $300 million.
Georgetown University law professor Peter Edelman, an ACS Board Member, echoes Houseman's concerns about funding in an accompanying white paper.
But, he adds, “While we must keep pressing with undiminished energy for more lawyers, we also need to do everything we can to make the courts less impenetrable for people who struggle to use them without legal representation.”
His paper provides suggestions for improving the system for unrepresented litigants, “When Second Best is the Best We Can Do.”