The House Appropriations Committee included $410 million for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) in the fiscal year 2019 appropriations bill the panel approved May 17.
The funding package maintains the LSC funding level at its fiscal year 2018 amount, which reflected a $25 million increase for the corporation.
The ABA, however, is urging Congress to approve $482 million for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) in fiscal year 2019, which would restore the corporation’s funding to its fiscal year 2010 level adjusted for inflation and help narrow America’s “justice gap.”
“The ABA has long been committed to the realization of ‘Equal Justice Under Law’ in our country,” President Hilarie Bass wrote in testimony recently submitted to the House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittees on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies. In her letters, she emphasized that the 2017 Justice Gap Report conducted by the University of Chicago revealed that 86 percent of the civil legal problems faced by low-income American each year receive inadequate or no legal help. Because of this lack of resources, the World Justice Project’s 2017-18 Rule of Law Index ranked the United States 26th out of 102 countries for civil justice access.
While LSC, which supports nearly 900 legal aid offices across the country in every congressional district, received a $25 million increase to $410 million for fiscal year 2018, the program’s funding is still 15 percent lower than it was in fiscal year 2010 even as the number of people qualifying for assistance is about 25 percent higher than in 2007.
Several factors are contributing to the increased need for legal services, Bass said, pointing out that disasters have a severe and disproportionate impact on the poor. Disaster-related legal issues include survivors’ need to obtain important documents to apply for or restore benefits and the need to secure housing. “With families experiencing even more stressors than before, there is also an increase in the need for more legal information on public benefits, domestic violence prevention, consumer law, and fraud prevention,” Bass explained.
Another area causing concern is the opioid epidemic, which increases the need for legal services to handle custody, guardianship, and adoptions for family members who are caring for children who have been placed in their care because of neglect by addicted parents.
Bass pointed out that LSC has formed both a Disaster Task Force and an Opioid Task Force to address these issues.
The ABA president highlighted proposals by the White House and the House Budget Committee to eliminate LSC funding, emphasizing that the federal role in equal justice is necessary because legal aid clients secure their rights through federal law as well as state and local law.
“Elimination of federal funding for equal justice would necessarily foist unfunded mandates on states, tribes, and localities. Day in and day out, LSC-funded attorneys work with these federal laws to secure the federal rights of individuals unable to secure their rights for themselves.” Bass said. The federal government “should contribute its fair share,” which she said “can only be accomplished through funding LSC.”
Bass also pointed out that dozens of statewide studies show the positive cost-benefit impact of legal aid and that polling by the Voice for Civil Justice showed that 82 percent of those surveyed believe that it is important to ensure that everyone has access to civil legal help.
In related action, 251 corporate legal department leaders from across the county sent a letter April 17 to all members of Congress urging increased LSC funding.
“When improperly addressed, civil legal problems can result in life-altering consequences as significant as the loss of income or a home, lack of access to physical safety, or denial of benefits earned by serving our military,” the letter stated, adding that “LSC grantees help families gain a foothold in the middle class, strengthening our local workforce and economy.”