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Testimony Before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies by LSC President Helaine M. Barnett, April 2, 2008

Chairman Mollohan, Congressman Frelinghuysen, and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you very much for holding this hearing and for giving me the opportunity to testify on the Legal Services Corporation's (LSC) Fiscal Year 2009 Budget Request.  I also want to thank you for the bipartisan support you continue to provide to LSC.  While I know that you share my disappointment in how the budget process ended last year, your efforts in attempting to close the justice gap were greatly appreciated by our community.  

The Legal Services Corporation is the single largest source of funding for civil legal aid for low-income individuals and families. We fund 137 programs with more than 900 offices serving every Congressional district.  More than 95 percent of LSC appropriations are distributed to these programs.  The Corporation provides guidance, training and oversight to ensure that programs provide high-quality legal services and comply with Congressional restrictions, LSC rules, and regulations.

At the outset I wish to echo the testimony of Chairman Strickland regarding the reports of the Government Accountability Office.  I want to assure you that we truly embrace these reviews, take them with the utmost seriousness, and welcome the opportunity that they afford us to do our job even better.  As pointed out in the testimony of Chairman Strickland, we are working diligently and expeditiously to implement the GAO's recommendations and are even going beyond what was specifically recommended in the reports.

STEWARDSHIP OF TAXPAYER DOLLARS AND SERVICES TO OUR CLIENTS

All of this effort is in recognition of the fact that stewardship of taxpayer dollars is among our most important responsibilities.  Eligible clients need the critical services that we provide with those dollars.

Our programs' clients, the most vulnerable among us, live at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty level-an income of about $25,000 a year for a family of four. Three out of four are women, many of whom are mothers struggling to keep their families together and their children safe, fed and housed.

The clients of LSC-funded programs are of all races and ethnicities, young and old, the working poor, people with disabilities, families with children, veterans, victims of domestic violence, and victims of natural disasters.  LSC-funded programs make a meaningful difference in the lives of their clients-helping them secure basic human needs such as safe and habitable housing, an adequate source of income, access to needed health care, and protection from abusive relationships.

As you know, my entire legal career has been devoted to providing legal aid to low-income persons.  I am honored to be the first legal aid attorney to hold the position of President of the Corporation in its 34-year history.  I know first hand what our mission means to the lives of our clients.  Civil legal assistance to the poor literally saves lives.  When we assisted a young family in Wheeling from being evicted and falling into homelessness; when we saved a battered wife in Memphis from a violent and abusive marriage; when we helped a young mother in South Jersey maintain custody of her little girl; and when we saved a Baltimore grandmother from losing her home to foreclosure, our programs are literally saving the lives of our clients and giving them the chance to be productive members of our society.

But legal aid is more than that.  In a very direct way it saves money by preventing the downward spiral of the poor into costly public support.  Ensuring that our clients are adequately represented in the civil judicial system greatly improves their chances of keeping their home rather than moving into a shelter, holding a job rather than going onto public assistance, retaining custody and support of their children rather than losing them to foster care, receiving needed medical care before requiring costly hospitalization, escaping an abusive relationship rather than suffering further injury or even death. In short, civil legal assistance saves both lives and money

SUBPRIME MORTGAGE CRISIS AND CONTINUED IMPACT OF NATURAL DISASTERS

Since we testified before this subcommittee last year, the subprime mortgage crisis across the country and the rise of foreclosures has overtaken our clients and flooded many of our programs with requests for assistance.  Renters and senior citizens with fixed incomes are especially vulnerable to being displaced by foreclosure.  Our programs across the country are seeing a dramatic increase in calls from people seeking assistance with housing and predatory lending matters. In some instances, the number of foreclosure-related cases handled by our programs has doubled.  Many of our programs have also established special projects specifically dedicated to addressing foreclosure-related cases.  We expect this demand for legal assistance to continue to grow.  Without additional funding, these programs will be unable to meet this increasing demand related to foreclosures and evictions.

LSC-funded programs continue to provide civil legal assistance as part of the recovery process to victims of natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, the fires in southern California, the floods in the Midwest and Northwest, and the recent tornadoes in Tennessee and Arkansas.  Problems for victims of natural disasters continue far beyond their wake.  More than two and a half years after Hurricane Katrina, LSC grantees continue to help people with the loss of their homes, jobs and healthcare benefits.  I know from my own experience in New York City with the impact of 9/11 that the need will continue for many years to come.

Just as the need for legal aid is growing, the number of poor Americans eligible to receive civil legal aid is growing.  Eight years ago, 44 million Americans qualified for LSC-funded services.  Today, nearly 50 million poor Americans qualify.

2009 BUDGET REQUEST

LSC requests an appropriation of $471,362,000 for FY 2009, an increase of $40,681,000 over the FY 2008 request.  Again this year, more than 95 percent of the request is for basic field grants and for grants to programs to improve efficiency and effectiveness through the use of technology. 

LSC continues to be guided in our funding request by the September 2005 report, Documenting the Justice Gap in America: The Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-Income Americans.  LSC's Justice Gap Report documents that 50 percent of low-income Americans who are eligible to receive civil legal assistance and who come to LSC-funded programs for help are turned away due to lack of adequate program resources.  State legal needs studies and reports, since the release of the Justice Gap Report, not only affirm its conclusions, but indicate that the needs may well have been understated.  For example:

  • New Mexico, 80 percent of the legal needs of low-income New Mexicans are unmet.
     
  • New Jersey, 99 percent of defendants in housing eviction cases go to court without a lawyer.
     
  • Utah, 87 percent of poor households facing a legal problem do so without an attorney.
     
  • Nebraska, 86 percent of eligible clients with a legal problem are unable to receive help from Legal Aid of Nebraska, the statewide LSC-funded program.
     
  • Wisconsin, 80 percent of poor households facing a legal problem do so without an attorney.
     
  • California, 67 percent of the legal services needs of low-income Californians are unmet.
     
  • Maine, 75 percent of the litigants in the civil justice system are not represented by counsel.
     
  • Hawaii, 80 percent of low- and moderate-income residents have unmet legal needs.
     
  • Arizona, 75 percent of Arizonans with civil legal needs are not represented by an attorney.

The following chart compares LSC's request for FY 2009 with the FY 2008 appropriations and the FY 2008 request.

Chart: LSC's FY 2009 Budget Request
Click to enlarge.

LSC's request represents another significant increase in Basic Field grants to fulfill our Board's plan to close the justice gap in America.  As LSC's Justice Gap Report concluded, there needs to be a doubling of both federal and non-federal funding to serve those eligible clients that are currently being turned away.  Non-federal funding has shown a $100 million increase in the period between 2005 and 2007.  While it is clear that this subcommittee remains supportive of LSC, federal funding has lagged behind in this effort.  Fourteen years ago, the federal appropriation for LSC was $400 million.

This year's request would bring Basic Field Grants to $445.2 million. The amount of the increase is 20 percent more than the FY 2008 Senate-passed total for Basic Field Grants of $371 million. This is the same percentage increase requested in each of the last two years. 

In addition to recommending $445.2 million for Basic Field Grants, LSC requests $5 million for Technology Initiative Grants.  Technology improvements allow LSC grantees to deliver more assistance at a lower cost.  For FY 2009, we plan to expand intake through online systems; expand assistance for pro se litigants through the development of additional automated forms; explore innovative uses of new technologies; and provide support for replication of technologies that have been demonstrated to both improve and expand client services.

LSC requests $1 million to extend the pilot Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP). The LSC LRAP is designed to assess the extent to which loan repayment assistance enhances the ability of LSC grantees to recruit and retain high-quality staff.  It provides participants up to $5,000 for three years ($15,000 total) in loan repayment assistance. Initial assessments of our first year program found that loan repayment assistance substantially enhances attorneys' ability to work in legal services and enhances programs' ability to recruit and retain staff.  Participants in the LSC program report that the loan repayment assistance significantly increased the likelihood that they would stay with their program.  An additional $1 million will allow LSC to extend its three-year pilot program and enable LSC to help more attorneys and provide a larger pool to evaluate the impact on the ability of LSC-funded programs to recruit and retain attorneys.  While Congress has included a loan repayment assistance provision in the Higher Education Act of 2007 to be administered by the Department of Education, that program will require more than a year to be funded and implemented, necessitating the continuation of our pilot at least through 2009.

LSC requests $17 million for Management and Administration. The additional resources will be used to expand LSC's oversight of grantee compliance with regulations and congressional restrictions and to help enhance the quality of grantee services.  This increase is necessary in light of the GAO reports and our efforts to implement all the recommendations to strengthen the Corporation's oversight of our 137 grantees.  In order to effectively implement improved oversight, we need more staff. 

The Office of Inspector General requests $3.1 million for FY 2009, and that number is included in a total recommended request for LSC of $471.3 million.

STRONGER CONTROLS, INCREASED FUNDING

As we strive to improve and strengthen our internal controls and oversight responsibilities, we know that LSC cannot fully realize its mission as long as the justice gap endures.  We need a multi-pronged effort to secure more resources both from the public and the private sector.  In this effort, the federal government must lead the way consistent with its role in maintaining the formal civil justice system, providing for the orderly resolution of disputes, and providing an avenue to equal justice for all.  State and local governments, private funding sources, and the private bar are critical partners and share the responsibility for increasing their contributions, both of funding and service.  While we have a long way to go to close the justice gap, we greatly appreciate all your efforts to help us reach our goal. 

As you noted at this hearing last year, Chairman Mollohan, congressional appropriations for the Legal Services Corporation amount to less than half of what was appropriated for LSC in 1981 in inflation-adjusted terms.  The LSC Board and Management urge you to restore adequate funding for the provision of civil legal aid to the most vulnerable among us.  We urge this Subcommittee to help close the justice gap by approving our FY 2009 budget request of $471 million.