It’s time for Congress to step up funding for the Legal Services Corporation
Equality before the law is one of the foundations of the American legal system. But while a right to counsel is guaranteed in criminal matters, all too often Americans don’t have access to counsel in basic civil matters, such as child custody, mortgage foreclosure, or claims for disability and veterans benefits. The promise of American justice can be out of reach without a lawyer to present a cases or protect basic civil rights. That’s where legal aid and the federally funded Legal Services Corporation (LSC) come in.
Established in 1974, LSC operates as an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation funded by Congress that promotes equal access to justice and provides grants for high-quality civil legal assistance to Americans who earn at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty level. For example, in 2022 an individual had to make $16,688 or less per year and $34,688 for a family of four to be eligible for legal aid from LSC. Over 60 million American families qualify for legal aid from LSC.
We raise the issue of legal aid now as Congress negotiates the FY 2022 budget and the expiration of a continuing resolution to fund the U.S. government in the coming days. One of Congress’ most important tasks is sorting out our national priorities through the budget process. The federal budget is much more than a dollar-and-cents document. It is a blueprint of national values reflecting the principles and commitments 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 single largest funder of civil legal aid for the poor in the nation.
In July, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies called for $600 million for LSC in Fiscal Year 2022, matching the budget request from the White House—a $135 million increase from current funding.
In October, a spending bill released by Senate Democrats provided $515 million for LSC, a $50 million increase from current funding, but $85 million less than what the House and White House are seeking and far less than what is truly 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 funding LSC at the full $600 million level is necessary if we are going to even begin to address the current crisis in civil legal aid, in which demand far outstrips the resources to meet it.
LSC’s 2017 Justice Gap report found that 86 percent of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help, and another survey found many legal aid providers funded by LSC were forced to turn away 40 percent or more of those seeking assistance because of a lack of resources.
LSC’s current funding of $465 million is not nearly enough to address this unmet need.
In fact, LSC’s funding has not increased significantly over the past 30 years. It is nowhere near what is needed to keep up with three decades of inflation and population growth—much less the increase in legal needs caused by recessions, medical crises, and other factors. This demand for legal help to meet basic human needs is not concentrated in any particular geographic area or demographic population—it reaches every corner of our country and every aspect of society.
In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted spikes in demand for legal services in eviction and foreclosure matters, unemployment, consumer debt, and domestic violence. Many Americans have been forced to seek civil legal aid for the first time. New benefits programs have been created and existing programs changed, bringing new regulations and legal challenges for low-income Americans to navigate.
The burden this has placed on civil legal aid providers has varied during the last two years, but at times has 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 percent higher than the prior year. At the same time, Southeast Louisiana Legal Services experienced a 670 percent increase in requests for assistance with unemployment matters.
An LSC survey found that 95 percent of legal service providers it funds reported a sharp increase in need for legal assistance with evictions, and increased demand in the areas of income maintenance, benefits, and domestic violence.
Just a few weeks ago, a lawyer at Lone Star Legal Aid in Houston said the organization was handling more eviction cases than at any point in its entire history, and Land of Lincoln Legal Aid in Illinois stopped taking eviction cases in two of its offices because they had reached maximum capacity. In our Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia saw more than 300 new eviction cases filed during the first week of 2022, the highest number since the pandemic began.
Throughout the pandemic, LSC has sought supplemental funding to help respond to the overwhelming challenges posed by the pandemic. Congress appropriated an additional $50 million to LSC in the CARES Act in 2020, but that has not been enough to meet the dramatic spike in demand for essential legal services LSC grantees provide.
It is long past time for Congress to step up support for our front-line legal aid responders as they grapple with the pandemic, while continuing to assist veterans, the elderly, survivors of domestic violence, and others. Every dollar spent on legal aid helps low-income Americans secure rights and benefits that Congress itself helped to enact.
We must come to the aid of our civil legal aid lawyers so they can help deliver the promise of equal justice under the law to our most vulnerable Americans.
Brian Fitzpatrick and Mary Gay Scanlon are co-chairs of the Congressional Access to Legal Aid Caucus.
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