ABA President Paulette Brown emphasized in statements to congressional appropriators last month that the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) is in serious need of increased support and should be funded at $475 million for fiscal year 2017.
The $475 million amount, which was included in President Obama’s proposed budget, would increase the program’s funding by $90 million and would continue to support 134 independent nonprofit legal aid programs with nearly 800 offices across all congressional districts in the country.
Brown thanked the House and Senate Subcommittees on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies for beginning to restore LSC’s budget over the last three years with small increases. Nevertheless, she pointed out that the corporation’s current budget, calculated in 2016 dollars, is still 15.7 percent lower that it was in 2010 while the number of low-income people qualifying for legal assistance has increased by 25 percent over the past decade.
She also explained that robust federal funding for the LSC is desperately needed because other funding sources have diminished since the country’s economic downturn. For example, revenue from Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (IOLTA) has decreased approximately 80 percent in the past nine years, resulting in a 68 percent decline in grants provided by IOLTAs to legal aid programs.
Those qualified for legal services under the program are at or below 125 percent of federal poverty levels, which are $11,880 for an individual and $24,300 for a family of four. The most recent Census Bureau data show that more than 95.2 million Americans (one in three) qualified for civil legal aid at some point in 2014. Studies show, however, that 50 percent to 80 percent of all eligible people seeking legal aid services are turned away due to lack of resources.
Brown described the numerous areas in which LSC-funded programs help clients, including assistance with health concerns, consumer and financial matters, family law, access to education, individual rights, income maintenance, juvenile law, tribal law, employment, disability issues, and housing. Those seeking help include veterans returning from war, older Americans, natural-disaster victims, clients in rural areas, and women, who constitute nearly 70 percent of those helped by legal aid offices.
LSC’s fiscal year 2017 budget request emphasizes the Pro Bono Innovation Fund (PBIF), launched in fiscal year 2014 to support collaborative projects to develop replicable innovations in pro bono legal services. Also, with its Technology Initiative Grants (TIG) program, LSC has increased the efficiency of statewide websites and enhanced case management systems. LSC also this past year followed through on its strategic plan of strong management and accountability for federal funds.
In conclusion, Brown cited the economic benefits that civil legal aid programs provide. For example, preventing foreclosure and domestic violence provides measurable benefits to families and savings for the community. A 2015 Tennessee Bar Association study − one of over a half dozen − shows more than an 11-fold return on investment in legal services.
Looking ahead, appropriations bills are breaking all modern records for speed. The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies included $395 million for LSC in a fiscal year 2017 draft approved April 19. Two days later, the full committee reported a bill that included the subcommittee amount. House appropriators have not yet considered legislation that would fund LSC, but the appropriations subcommittees are proceeding with fiscal year 2017 funding bills even though the House has not agreed to a budget resolution determining whether the House will comply with the budget deal it agreed to last October or come up with a budget that would further reduce spending.