ABA President James R. Silkenat urged a House Appropriations subcommittee March 31 to fund the LSC at no less than $430 million in fiscal year 2015 – the same amount requested by President Obama.
“At a time when more Americans than ever qualify for and need legal aid, strong federal funding for LSC is more critical than ever,” Silkenat said in a statement submitted to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies. The number of people eligible for legal aid in fiscal year 2015 is expected to reach an all-time high of 67 million (nearly 30 percent of the population), and the increase in poverty levels and the growing complexity of legal problems faced by the poor will result in increased demand for legal assistance as well, he said.
Silkenat explained that LSC’s current level of funding, $365 million, is just $65 million more than LSC’s appropriation was in 1980. Adjusted for inflation, the 1980 appropriation would be more than $850 million today, he said. LSC is the largest provider of civil legal assistance to low-income Americans, and LSC grants fund legal aid programs in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
He emphasized that LSC programs assist a variety of clients, including veterans returning from war, domestic violence victims, seniors, those with disabilities, low-income military families, those struggling with housing matters such as foreclosures and evictions, people coping with the after-effects of natural disasters, and families dealing with child custody issues.
“Legal assistance is necessary not only for the millions of low-income Americans struggling to keep their jobs, stay in their homes and provide for their families, but also for the functioning of the U.S. court system,” Silkenat said. Increasing numbers of individuals representing themselves have hindered the judicial process, according to the Conference of Chief Justices, and LSC funds provide more efficiency in the courts by providing lawyers to represent individuals or to provide guidance to those who choose to represent themselves.
Silkenat pointed out that LSC also provides the infrastructure and framework for most pro bono services provided by private lawyers through public-private partnerships.
“Without adequate funding for LSC that can be used to provide this framework, the justice gap would be further exacerbated,” he said. The ABA president also explained that other sources of legal aid funding have declined in recent years, including Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts (IOLTAs) and state appropriations.
He urged support for the Pro Bono Innovation Fund, an initiative first funded this year for the creation of new and innovative projects to promote and enhance pro bono initiatives throughout the country.
Sikenat also emphasized the ABA’s long history of supporting civil legal assistance to those in need. The association formed the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants in 1920, and in 1964 then ABA President Lewis F. Powell Jr. urged expansion of legal aid services for the poor. The ABA, along with many others, assisted in this effort, and LSC was established by Congress and the Nixon administration in 1974.