Legal aid programs across the country are confronting a crisis. The deepening recession continues to increase the number of clients in need of legal assistance, while simultaneously wreaking havoc on many of the program's major funding sources. Some programs are already laying off staff, closing offices, reducing work hours-all of which means less help for low-income Americans in their time of greatest need.
That is why the Legal Services Corporation is requesting $485.1 million from Congress for its fiscal year 2010 budget, an increase of $95.1 million over current funding levels. While recognizing the fiscal constraints facing Congress and the country as a whole, LSC can not ignore the financial crisis confronting its programs and their clients. As other sources of legal aid funding decline in the coming years, increased federal funding will be critical to compensate for the shortfall.
The vast majority of LSC's fiscal 2010 request-$460 million-would be distributed as grants to 137 civil legal aid programs across the country. An additional $3.4 million would fund the successful Technology Initiative Grants program and $1 million would provide loan repayment assistance to attorneys at LSC-funded programs. The remainder would fund LSC management and grants oversight, at $17.2 million, and the Office of Inspector General.
"On behalf of LSC, the programs it funds and the clients they serve, I thank the Congress for increasing the Corporation's budget for 2009," said LSC President Helaine M. Barnett. "I believe there is continuing recognition of the critical need for the services provided by LSC-funded programs, especially as the economic crisis creates legal problems for more and more low-income Americans. LSC looks forward to working with Congress throughout the upcoming appropriations process."
Download the budget request. ( 700k)
The Washington Post – March 14, 2009
Never has the Legal Services Corp. been more essential. With unemployment on the rise and foreclosures surging, the group provides wide-ranging civil legal assistance to the growing ranks of those in need: representation in eviction or foreclosure proceedings, assistance in securing food stamps or unemployment benefits, guidance on insurance or medical services.
But as demand for the group's services grows, its funding sources are dwindling. Law firms, which have traditionally provided a good chunk of Legal Services' money, have been hard hit by the economic downturn and have scaled back their giving. Legal Services had been the beneficiary of interest generated by escrow accounts held by law firms; because interest rates are historically low, that revenue also has shrunk dramatically. State governments are less able to contribute. According to the Legal Services' officials, the group routinely turns away roughly half of all low-income people who seek its help.
So it was welcome news that the federal government, which remains the most important backer of the nonprofit corporation, is stepping up its assistance. The omnibus appropriations bill signed this week by President Obama set aside $390 million for the group-up $40 million, or 11 percent, over last year's funding level. This will not cover the shortfall from other funding sources or make up for years when the group's budget was slashed, but it's a start.
The Legal Services Corporation will receive a $40 million increase in funding for fiscal 2009 as part of an omnibus appropriations bill signed into law by the President on March 11. The increase was approved by the Appropriations Committees of the House and Senate in June 2008.
Although this funding increase was welcomed across the legal aid community, LSC funding has not kept pace with the rising demand for legal assistance from the nation's poor. From 2007 to 2008 LSC funding was essentially flat while Census data show that an additional one million Americans became eligible for LSC-funded services. Furthermore, the deepening recession, the ongoing foreclosure crisis and the certainty of future natural disasters all promise to create more clients for legal aid programs in the near future.
Under the new appropriation, LSC will operate on a budget of $390 million. Of that total, $365.8 million will be made available to 137 LSC-funded legal aid programs across the nation.
"The additional funding is critical to every one of our programs," LSC President Helaine M. Barnett said. "Low-income individuals and families are increasingly at risk during this economic downturn and our programs are overwhelmed with requests for help."
The University of the Virgin Islands has announced it has selected LSC Board Member David Hall as the school's new president. The announcement was made at the quarterly meeting of the university's Board of Trustees on March 14. An article in the Virgin Island Daily News reports that Hall is "very excited by the news of my selection by the board" and that he is "looking forward to building on the close connection that the university has with the community." His five-year contract with the school begins on Aug. 1, 2009.
Hall is currently a professor at the Boston-based Northeastern University School of Law, where he has previously served as associate dean of academic affairs and later as dean. He has also served as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at the university. Hall was appointed to the Legal Services Corporation's Board of Directors by President Bush in 2003. He chairs the Board's committee on the Provision for the Delivery of Legal Services.
Announces New Online Resource for Legal Aid Attorneys
On March 19, LSC President Helaine M. Barnett led the Corporation's third conference call with legal aid, consumer and poverty law organizations to discuss legal aid and equal justice initiatives that might address the nation's ongoing foreclosure crisis.
During the discussion, Barnett announced that LSC has dedicated a section of its LSC Resource Information website, www.lri.lsc.gov, to serve as a central clearinghouse for information to help legal aid attorneys advising and representing clients in foreclosure actions. The webpage contains valuable resources related to foreclosure training, community education, policy and legislative issues and links to collaborative work spaces and descriptions of foreclosure prevention projects at legal aid programs around the nation. LSC has posted a prominent link to the new section on its main website, www.lsc.gov.
Participants discussed their organizations' efforts regarding foreclosure prevention, strategies for representation in foreclosure cases, the impact of recent federal and state legislative initiatives and the creation of court mediation programs in some states.
Participants on the call included representatives from the American Bar Association, the Center for Responsible Lending, the National Consumer Law Center, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland and representatives from LSC-funded programs in California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Tennessee and Texas.
Press Release – March 11, 2009
In response to the mortgage foreclosure crisis, the Alabama State Bar and Legal Services Alabama have joined in a unique partnership designed to assist troubled homeowners in danger of losing their homes to foreclosure.
Under the public awareness and education campaign announced [March 11], homeowners facing foreclosure can call a toll-free hotline (1-877-393-2333) and be connected with a legal aid attorney who will advise them about the various stages of the process and furnish free legal assistance. Such assistance can take the form of limited representation, negotiation or litigation, if necessary.
State Bar President-elect Thomas J. Methvin of Montgomery (Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles, P.C.), who chairs the Mortgage Foreclosure Task Force said, "Help is available. Homeowners need to know there are options but the key to a successful outcome is early intervention and I can't stress that enough. If you are having a problem making your monthly payments and believe foreclosure is imminent you must act now."
The two LSC-funded legal aid programs in Arkansas will be the sole beneficiaries of a filing fee increase approved by the state legislature on March 16. The measure will raise state circuit court filing fees from $140 to $150, with the additional revenue going to the Center for Arkansas Legal Services and Legal Aid of Arkansas, which together provide civil legal services to low-income residents throughout the state. The increase is expected to raise $500,000 a year for the two programs, which also receive about $350,000 annually from a separate filing fee increase enacted in 2005. The new increase came about largely as a result of the efforts of the Arkansas Access to Justice Commission, which identified the increase as an option and worked to gain support for it.
State Senator Robert Thompson introduced the measure and worked to shepherd it through the legislative process. "I have been on Legal Aid of Arkansas' pro bono panel for the past few years, and I know the importance of legal services to those who cannot afford it," said Thompson. Representative Steve Harrelson, who introduced a companion measure in the House, said "I believe it's important to help those less fortunate gain access to the justice system...I believe that [this bill] will open the courthouse doors for an entirely new sector of Arkansans seeking redress and justice."
The Houston-based Lone Star Legal Aid and the Galveston Housing Authority have reached an agreement regarding four of the island's public housing complexes that have been closed since suffering severe damage from Hurricane Ike in September 2008.
Under the agreement, the housing authority will replace all public housing units it demolishes on a one-for-one basis-preserving the level of public housing stock that existed prior to the hurricane. The plan agreed on by the parties calls for two of the complexes to be demolished and two to be renovated to serve as temporary housing while new complexes are being built. The housing authority also agreed to pay for the displaced tenants' living accommodations until they could return to their homes.
On March 2, Lone Star Legal Aid asked the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to intervene and halt the housing authority's planned demolition of the complexes, arguing that the group had not gone through the required HUD approval process. Lone Star Legal Aid requested that the authority have a plan to protect the rights of displaced residents during the demolition and rebuilding process. The legal aid program withdrew its complaint after the two groups reached an agreement
In a recent column, Sylvester Brown of Missouri's St. Louis Post-Dispatch admits to enjoying the occasional lawyer joke-"Why won't sharks attack lawyers? Professional courtesy."-but saw nothing to justify the briefcase-wielding lawyer stereotype at his recent trip to the Legal Services of Eastern Missouri. Instead he found that a "sense of justice resonates" at the organization and met "real heroes in the legal field." He learned about the group's "strong legacy of justice" dating back to the 1930's, which includes successfully defending 30,000 public housing tenants from a crippling rent increase during the late ´60's and securing the release of a 31-year-old, mentally-disabled man who had been confined to a state hospital since committing a petty crime at the age of 13. He describes an "unusual giddiness" exhibited by Executive Director Dan Glazier when talking about his co-workers-professionals who are passionate about providing justice to the poor and who have often foregone higher salaries to do their work.
"Many of us find those corny lawyer jokes funny because we all know lawyers who deserve the hits," concludes Brown in his column, "But after visiting Legal Services, I was reminded that there are also real heroes in the legal field."
California Chronicle – March 5, 2009
[On March 4] Assemblymember Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) announced AB 590, a landmark measure that would make California the first state in the nation to establish a model program providing a right to counsel for low-income people in critical civil cases.
"In this economic downturn, many Californians are facing homelessness for the first time in their lives," said Feuer. "Now more than ever, we must take steps to ensure that essential legal rights regarding basic human needs-including shelter-are not sacrificed or abandoned simply because someone cannot afford to hire a private lawyer to assist them."
Currently, attorneys are appointed for indigent parties only in criminal cases. However, legal officials agree that some issues decided in civil cases can be just as significant as in criminal cases, such as cases involving the elderly and individuals with disabilities, and the well‑being and safety of parents and children, and the basic need for adequate shelter. AB 590 would support the project through a $10 increase on certain court fees when a party wins a case, without drawing on scarce state funds.
Legal aid is about helping ordinary people with real-life problems. Client stories illustrate the day-to-day struggles-and victories-of poor Americans seeking justice under law.
The March 2009 issue of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles's newsletter, "LAFLA Matters," features the story of how the program's immigration unit helped four women-victims of human traffickers-work with the U.S. Attorney's Office to put their victimizers in jail. Here is their story:
A federal jury in Los Angeles on February 11, 2009 returned a guilty verdict against five members of an organized crime family who brought young Central American girls and women to the U.S. and forced them to engage in prostitution in the Los Angeles area. The jury's verdict will result in prison sentences of a mandatory minimum of 15 years for four of the defendants, and up to life imprisonment for all five of the defendants. Four co-defendants had previously entered guilty pleas prior to the trial. LAFLA attorneys Sheila Neville, Daliah Setareh and Susanna Martinez worked with the women by accompanying them to...interviews with the [Assistant] United States Attorney's Office; filing motions on their behalf with the court (to protect identity, explain immigration benefits for victims, etc), and being present for their testimony in court.
They also worked with the young women to stabilize them and to vindicate their legal rights following their rescue. The results of this six-week trial were built on years of teamwork in victim services, thorough investigation, and hard-fought litigation. Because of the tireless efforts of the dozens of dedicated individuals, the young women and girls exploited by these sex traffickers have had their freedom restored, and the sex traffickers have been decisively brought to justice and prevented from victimizing others.