It’s time for Congress to increase funding for the Legal Services Corporation
Equality before the law is one of the foundations of the American legal system. But while the right to an attorney is guaranteed in criminal cases, too often Americans don’t have access to an attorney in basic civil cases, such as child custody, mortgage foreclosure or benefit claims. disability and veterans. The promise of American justice may be out of reach without an attorney to present a case or protect basic civil rights. This is where legal aid and the federally funded program Legal Services Company (LSC) Come in.
Founded in 1974, LSC operates as an independent, congressionally funded 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation that promotes equal access to justice and provides grants for high-quality civil legal assistance to Americans. who earn 125% or less of the federal poverty level. level. For example, in 2022 a person had to earn $16,688 or less per year and $34,688 for a family of four to qualify for LSC legal aid. More than 60 million American families are eligible for LSC legal aid.
We raise the issue of legal aid now that Congress is negotiating the fiscal year 2022 budget and the expiration of a continuing resolution to fund the US government in the coming days. One of the most important jobs of Congress is to set our national priorities through the budget process. The federal budget is much more than a document of dollars and cents. It is a model of national values reflecting the principles and commitments that our government deems worthy of funding. So it is in this process that we must recognize the value of access to justice for low-income Americans as Congress decides how much to fund LSC, the largest funder of civil legal aid. for the country’s poor.
In July, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies called for $600 million for LSC in fiscal year 2022matching the White House budget request, an increase of $135 million over current funding.
In October, a spending bill released by Senate Democrats called for $515 million for LSC, a $50 million increase from current funding but $85 million less than what the House and the White House are looking for far less than is really needed.
As co-chairs of the Congressional Access to Legal Aid Caucus, we are committed to expanding access to legal services for low-income Americans. We believe that LSC funding at the $600 million level is necessary if we are to even begin to address the current civil legal aid crisis, in which the demand far exceeds the resources needed to meet it.
LSC’s 2017 Justice Gap report revealed that 86 percent of civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal aid, and another survey found that many LSC-funded legal aid providers were forced to turn away 40% or more of those seeking help due to a lack of resources.
LSC’s current funding of $465 million is far from sufficient to meet this unmet need.
In fact, LSC funding has not increased significantly over the past 30 years. This is far from what is needed to cope with three decades of inflation and population growth, let alone the increased legal needs caused by recessions, medical crises and other factors. This demand for legal aid to meet basic human needs is not concentrated in any particular geographic area or demographic – it reaches every corner of our country and every aspect of society.
Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused spikes in demand for legal services in eviction and foreclosure cases, unemployment, consumer debt, and domestic violence. Many Americans have been forced to seek civil legal aid for the first time. New benefit programs have been created and existing programs have been modified, bringing new regulations and legal challenges for low-income Americans.
The burden this has placed on civil legal aid providers has varied over the past two years, but has at times been alarming.
In June 2020, Kentucky Legal Aid reported that the number of unemployment claims filed since the start of the pandemic was 3,471% more than the previous year. At the same time, legal departments in southeast Louisiana experienced a 670 percent increase in applications for unemployment assistance.
A survey by the LSC found that 95% of legal service providers it funds reported a sharp increase in the need for eviction legal assistance and an increase in demand in the areas of income maintenance, benefits and domestic violence.
Just a few weeks ago, an attorney for Lone Star Legal Aid in Houston said the organization was handling more eviction cases than at any time in its history, and Land of Lincoln Legal Aid in the Illinois stopped taking eviction cases in two of its offices because they had reached capacity. In our Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia saw over 300 new deportation cases filed in the first week of 2022the highest number since the start of the pandemic.
Throughout the pandemic, LSC has sought additional funding to help meet the overwhelming challenges posed by the pandemic. Congress allocated an additional $50 million to LSC in the CARES Act in 2020, but it was not enough to meet the surge in demand for essential legal services provided by LSC recipients.
It is time for Congress to step up its support for our frontline legal aid workers as they fight the pandemic, while continuing to help veterans, seniors, survivors of domestic violence and others. Every dollar spent on legal aid helps low-income Americans obtain rights and benefits that Congress itself helped enact.
We need to come to the aid of our civil legal aid attorneys so they can help fulfill the promise of equal justice under the law to our most vulnerable Americans.
Brian FitzpatrickBrian K. FitzpatrickBalance/Sustainability—Arctic Warming Freezes Chinese Cultures House Dems, Green Groups Demand National Biodiversity Strategy From Biden On The Money—Support for New COVID-19 Relief Grows MORE and Mary Gay ScanlonMary Gay ScanlonSuspect charged in Philadelphia with carjacking of Democratic congresswoman Illinois state senator at gunpoint near Chicago Five arrested in connection with carjacking of Democrat from the PLUS Room are co-chairs of the Congressional Access to Legal Aid Caucus.