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Testimony Before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies by LSC President Helaine M. Barnett, March 29, 2007

Mr. Chairman, Congressman Frelinghuysen, and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for giving Chairman Strickland and me this opportunity to testify before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies.  I also want to thank you for the bipartisan support you have demonstrated toward LSC, including the increase in our fiscal year 2007 funding.

I was appointed President of LSC in January 2004. My entire legal career has been devoted to the delivery of legal services to low-income people at the Legal Aid Society of New York City, where I was a legal aid lawyer for 37 years, which included 10 years as head of its Civil Division.

The Legal Services Corporation is the single largest source of funding for civil legal aid for low-income individuals and families. We fund 138 programs with more than 900 offices serving every Congressional district.

LSC distributes more than 95 percent of its appropriation to these programs and provides effective oversight to ensure that programs provide high-quality legal services and comply with Congressional restrictions, LSC rules, and regulations.  Administrative expenses are only about 4 percent of LSC's budget-low by any standard.

The clients of LSC-funded programs, 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 all races and ethnicities, young and old, the working poor, people with disabilities, single parents, veterans, victims of domestic violence, and victims of natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. 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, access to needed health care, a job that pays a living wage, protection from abusive relationships, and assistance in preventing foreclosures.

But, as LSC's Justice Gap Report documents, our programs are turning away half the people who seek their help-and are eligible to receive it. For every person served, one equally in need is turned away. This justice gap-the 50 percent of poor people who seek help from LSC-funded programs and are turned away due to limited resources-is why we seek a larger Congressional appropriation.

If anything, the Justice Gap Report understates the unmet need. Many who are eligible for help never seek it-they don't know they have a legal problem, don't know help is available, or don't know where to go for help.

In addition, Hurricane Katrina significantly increased the need for civil legal aid as well as the number of people eligible to receive it.    Many survivors faced more than one pressing legal issue, involving child custody, housing, consumer fraud, or government benefits. While LSC-funded offices have rendered extraordinary service, 18 months later, thousands of those cases are still unresolved. I know from my own experience with 9/11 in New York City that we can expect them to continue for many years to come.

At the same time, the number of poor Americans eligible to receive civil legal aid is growing, as is their need for legal aid.

We at LSC are committed to ensuring that our programs operate efficiently, effectively, and that they use their funds as Congress intends them to be used.

We also take steps to ensure that LSC-funded programs provide legal services of the highest quality. Last year, we revised the Performance Criteria that set the standards of quality. LSC uses these Criteria to evaluate programs and grant applications, and to challenge programs to improve their services.

But LSC cannot fully realize its mission as long as the justice gap endures. We need a multi-pronged effort to secure more resources from both 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 an orderly forum for the resolution of disputes, and providing an avenue to equal justice for all.  State and local governments, private funding sources, and the private bar are also critical partners and share the responsibility for increasing their contributions of both funding and services. 

Our nation promises justice for all, not just for those who can afford to pay for it. America can come closer to realizing that ideal. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell said, "Equal justice under law is not merely a caption on the faade of the Supreme Court building. It is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society ... it is fundamental that justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to economic status." 

I join Chairman Strickland in urging this Subcommittee to help close the justice gap in measured strides and approve our 2008 budget request for $430 million.