ABA President Laurel G. Bellows urged a House Appropriations subcommittee March 21 to provide $440 million in fiscal year 2014 for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), emphasizing that the increasing number of people eligible for legal aid makes adequate funding for LSC more important than ever.
LSC’s current funding is $358 million, set by the final fiscal year 2013 continuing resolution signed March 26 by the president. That figure, however, is expected to be further decreased in 2014 by approximately $18 million as a result of budget caps established under the Budget Control Act of 2011.
Bellows – in her statement to the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies – explained that LSC was funded at $420 million in 2010, and the recommended $440 million for fiscal year 2014 is a conservative estimate of the 2010 appropriations figure indexed for inflation.
“The ABA understands that federal funding must be carefully apportioned among many worthwhile programs and that the government has serious budgetary limitations,” Bellows said. “At the same time, the responsibility for providing justice for Americans is an obligation of government, referenced in the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution. The need for increased funding for LSC is paramount: for justice to prevail, access to justice must be universal,” she stressed.
Bellows explained that LSC, the largest provider of civil legal assistance to the poor in the nation, offers civil legal assistance to Americans at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty guidelines by providing grants to 134 local programs operating in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Individuals receiving assistance include veterans returning from war, domestic violence victims, individuals undergoing foreclosure or other housing issues, those coping with the after-effects of natural disasters, and families involved in child custody disputes.
Limited resources prevent LSC grantees from responding to more than half the applications for legal assistance by eligible individuals. The actual level of need is even larger than the current demand reflects because many poor people with life-altering legal problems “simply do not seek assistance because they are aware that they have at best a 50-50 chance of getting help,” Bellows said.
“Civil legal aid for the poor is a prime example of constituent services provided in every congressional district in the United States,” Bellows told the subcommittee. She emphasized that the services received through LSC-funded programs help prevent individuals from requiring assistance from public social service programs that could lead to a long-term reliance on such programs.
Bellows emphasized that federal funding to LSC provides a foundation for the country’s legal aid delivery system and is supplemented by other funding sources, including state government funding and use of court fees and fines to support legal aid. She explained, however, that federal funding is increasingly critical because the recent recession has diminished the other funding sources, and pro bono efforts, while critical, are insufficient to completely replace federal legal aid funding.