Legal Services for Poor Face Growing Need and Less Funding

Providers of civil legal services to the poor are having to furlough their staff, triage their clients, and turn away more people in need as a result of the congressional budget compromise reached last month. Legal services may include defending low-income individuals dealing with predatory lending, domestic violence, landlord-tenant disputes or foreclosure. As we’ve noted, legal experts have particularly urged to Congress to adequately fund legal services [1] in order to alleviate the crisis of flawed foreclosures.

But far from seeing any budget increases, the umbrella nonprofit group Legal Services Corporation had its funding cut by $15.8 million [2]2014about 4 percent of its most recent budget2014as a result of last month’s budget compromise. It was spared a $75 million cut first proposed by House Republicans. 

The modest reduction isn’t the only reason that the 136 legal aid programs across the country funded through LSC are in a tight spot. In addition to less funding from the federal government, they have limited support from cash-strapped states, dwindling revenue from trust accounts [3] and a growing population of people eligible and in need of their help.

201CYou do reach a point where you can no longer absorb201D the cuts, Edwina Frances Martin, a spokeswoman for Legal Services NYC, told me. Martin said her organization gets about 14 percent of its budget from Legal Services Corporation and lost about $720,000 in the final federal budget. It2019s planning cutbacks large and small2014cutting the budget for food at trainings, leaving some empty positions unfilled and implementing furloughs in some field offices.

Elsewhere in the country, Idaho Legal Aid Services is starting to shutter its offices several days every month, the Associated Press reported. The organization lost about 60 percent of its funding [4] in the final federal budget.

In Virginia, chapters of the Virginia Legal Aid Society are starting to lay off attorneys [5].

In Maine, Pine Tree Legal Assistance2014the group whose volunteer attorney [6] Thomas Cox deposed a GMAC employee last year and set off a nationwide furor [7] over flawed foreclosure practices at the nation2019s biggest banks2014estimates that the cuts will affect its ability to serve about 125 families this year [8].

In New Jersey, the group that coordinates civil legal services across the state said that programs are providing less full representation for clients and instead are opting to offer more limited help2014such as legal advice2014to more people. (Read the Legal Services of New Jersey2019s report from last month [9].)

The reasons for this are manifold. Like other states, New Jersey has lost some federal funding through Legal Services Corporation, but that2019s only its third-biggest revenue stream. Its biggest dilemma [10] is a drop in revenue from lawyers2019 trust accounts, which collect interest on payouts to clients and donate that interest to legal aid. That revenue has dropped from $40 million to $8 million annually, Legal Services of New Jersey said.

In New York, another stream of funding is also being lost. On top of its federal cut on general funding, Legal Services NYC is no longer going to be getting federal stimulus dollars specifically allocated by the state [11] for foreclosure prevention, as the New York Times reported on Friday. As we reported last week, the organization2019s foreclosure prevention efforts helped two homeowners in the Bronx discover and contest clauses hidden in the fine print of their mortgage modification agreements that would limit their ability to sue or fight foreclosure [12].At least in New York, legal services providers do have friends in high places. The state2019s chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, has for months [13] crusaded for more state dollars [14] to go to civil legal services and has pledged to make it happen.

201CAs chief judge, I see this as one of the great challenges facing our justice system today,201D Lippman said [14] in comments last week. 201CNo issue is more fundamental to our constitutional mandate of providing equal justice under the law than ensuring adequate legal representation.201D

Related: Read our report on how the budget slashed housing counseling funds [15] as well.

Follow on Twitter: @mariancw [16]

About Sandeep Junnarkar

Sandeep Junnarkar is the founder and editorial director of Family Lives Behind Bars.