Help Legal Services help people

A mother in Washington state went to court for a domestic violence protection order. Her former partner had tried to kill himself and had also threatened to kill her. The court refused to grant the protection order she needed to keep herself and her child safe.

In Galveston County, Texas, a Hurricane Ike survivor named Ronnie reread a letter from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the second time. Somehow, with the back of his house torn off by the storm and with mud and mold festering in what remained, the disaster agency had denied his request for relief. “Insufficient damage,” the letter said. Ronnie believes it may have had something to do with the fact that the FEMA inspector only took photos of the front of the house from the cab of his truck.

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Desperate for help, but with no money to afford it, both turned to their local legal aid providers — the Northwest Justice Project in Washington and Lone Star Legal Aid in Texas. Lawyers at these organizations offered their representation for free (pro bono) and won the protection order and FEMA aid that their clients sought.

For a domestic violence survivor and a natural disaster survivor, access to justice through legal aid gave them an opportunity for a safer, better life. For millions of other Americans, a pro bono lawyer represents their best chance to enter a courtroom, or to avoid it. Now, Congress has the opportunity to extend access to justice to many more Americans.

The Northwest Justice Project and Lone Star Legal Aid are two of 134 independent nonprofit legal aid programs with more than 800 offices nationwide that receive funding from the Legal Services Corporation to work on civil issues such as child custody, housing, consumer issues, government forms and benefits. Funded by the U.S. government, the LSC-associated legal aid offices that exist in every state contributed to the 2.3 million low-income Americans helped in 2011.

With more than 63 million (1 in 5) Americans qualifying for pro bono legal assistance, a major justice gap exists in the U.S. Those at the poverty level simply cannot afford to hire an attorney. Their only hope is a pro bono lawyer, but because of high demand for legal aid and lack of funding, these groups already turn away more clients than they can help.

Congress provided the LSC with $365 million this fiscal year, a meaningful $25 million boost from the previous year. Still, that number is far below the $420 million appropriated in fiscal 2010. Adjusted for inflation, the LSC budget is near its lowest funding level in its 40-year history. President Barack Obama’s budget request of $430 million — a figure supported by social justice organizations, including the American Bar Association — would allow the LSC to expand its competitive grants to address some of the overwhelming need for legal aid that we see in every American community.

Greater funding for the LSC would also alleviate the growing backlog of cases caused when litigants represent themselves in court. Self-represented litigants are statistically less likely to win their court cases, and they consume court resources and courtroom time at an alarming rate. Judges frequently have to walk these self-represented litigants through the justice process, which delays not only their own cases but other cases as well. Those without the help of a lawyer also risk making procedural errors that could lead to a negative outcome, even with otherwise meritorious claims. In many cases, a lawyer may advise that it is possible to avoid going to trial altogether and still achieve the desired outcome.  

Vietnam War veteran Mike O’Donnell did not have much, but he wanted to provide for his son. Fourteen-year-old Derrick was in foster care and struggling. Both wanted to live together, but child custody is a complex matter. Mike O’Brien, himself a 34-year National Guard veteran, was able to help. As a volunteer lawyer with the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, O’Brien navigated O’Donnell through the process of applications and court sessions. Today, a family is reunited thanks to a program partially funded by the LSC.

Mike and Derrick’s story is one among millions of the LSC’s successes, but many millions more cannot yet be told because the LSC’s chronically inadequate funding means it is unable to meet the overwhelming demand. Access to justice is not an abstract right. It is a roof above a family. It is heating oil in winter. It is dialysis. It is a wheelchair ramp leading up to the schoolhouse door. Congress can help Americans live safer, more productive lives by giving them access to legal aid. For Ronnie, Mike, Derrick, a mother in Washington and more than 2 million others, the LSC provided a lifeline. By funding the LSC at the president’s requested budget level, Congress can help ensure that the most vulnerable in our society have access to justice.

Silkenat is president of the American Bar Association.