Funding Civil Legal Aid: A Bipartisan Issue

April 14, 2015

by Sharon Browne and Martha Minow

This article was originally published as guest commentary in the The Hill's Congress Blog.

Although our economy is improving, the experiences of many truly poor people in this country remain very challenging. The legal rights of low-income Americans struggling with the many burdens of poverty must be protected, and that has been essential to the mission of the Legal Services Corporation since it was authorized in 1974 as one of the last acts of the Nixon Administration.

Legal rights are not self-enforcing. The availability of legal advice and counsel can make all the difference to low-income Americans who are fighting to avert unlawful foreclosure, escape domestic violence, secure veterans’ benefits, or address many other legal challenges that go to the heart of their security and well-being.

A woman in Pennsylvania, for example, sought legal assistance from Neighborhood Legal Services for help with a custody battle when her twins came home from visiting their father with bruises and welts. With the help of a Legal Services lawyer, she was able to have the court order supervised visitations.

A Navy veteran sought help from Pine Tree Legal Assistance in Maine over the custody of his children when their mother was no longer able to care for them. He was able to secure primary parental rights and provide a home for his children. Believing in “paying it forward,” he now works to help homeless veterans obtain basic necessities.

Every day, the 134 LSC-funded legal aid programs across the country help thousands and thousands of such people. LSC and its grantees, however, are facing formidable challenges, which will be explored  April  14th at a White House forum on the state of civil legal aid in America.  U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and White House Counsel  W. Neil Eggleston will be among the speakers providing remarks.  New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman will join Texas Chief Justice Nathan Hecht and other state supreme court justices for a panel discussion at the event.  And John Schultz, general counsel for the Hewlett-Packard Company, will join CBS Corporation’s Board Vice Chair Shari Redstone and other business leaders for a second panel on “Perspectives on Access to Justice from the Business Community.”

This event comes as LSC-funded programs are being forced by a lack of resources to turn away more and more low-income Americans seeking help.

In its first year of full Congressional funding, 1976, the fledgling LSC was allocated — in inflation-adjusted terms — more than $468 million, rising three years later to its all-time high of what today would be more than $880 million.

The FY 2015 allocation of $375 million is less than half of that, and that 2015 figure is $10 million more than the previous year.

Funding for grantees from non-LSC sources is also down in inflation adjusted dollars — more than $36 million since 2010.

As funding has remained low, the population eligible for LSC-funded assistance has grown to all-time highs. Nearly one in three Americans — 96 million people — qualified for LSC-funded services at some time during 2013, the most recent year for which U.S. Census Bureau data are available.

  • 63.6 million people — one in five Americans — had annual incomes below the threshold for LSC-funded legal assistance of 125 percent of the federal poverty line — $14,363 for an individual; $29,438 for a family of four.
  • Another 32.4 million people had incomes below the 125 percent level for at least two consecutive months during the year and thus qualified for assistance.

Civil legal aid is clearly in crisis, and the same sort of commitment from both sides of the political aisle that gave rise to LSC is now needed to ensure its continued effectiveness.

We met through our shared experience on the board of LSC, an institution established from the start to ensure bi-partisan and indeed non-partisan commitment to this enterprise. We hope to strengthen that commitment as Congress heads into a budget season and indeed, as the country navigates political differences.

America’s commitment to justice is at stake.

As Texas Chief Justice Hecht observed in his recent State of the Judiciary address:  “Justice for only those who can afford it is neither justice for all nor justice at all.”

Minow is dean of Harvard Law School and vice chair of the Legal Services Corporation Board of Directors. Browne is a former board member for the Legal Services Corporation and former principal attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, the nation’s oldest conservative/libertarian public interest law firm.