Remarks by John G. Levi | Omaha News Conference

Omaha News Conference July 15, 2015
July 23, 2015

Thank you Judge Piester.

I am delighted to be here today to formally introduce these important grants from LSC’s Midwestern Legal Disaster Coordination Fund to Legal Aid of Nebraska and Iowa Legal Aid.

The projects they will fund should help to bolster and expand the already impressive disaster response operations at work in these two states.

We will hear more about the grants in a moment from the leaders of these outstanding legal aid organizations.

I am also so happy to announce that LSC  is funding a new Initiative, the  LSC Rural Summer Legal Corps, which will launch  in the summer of 2016.

Equal Justice Works, a nonprofit that recruits and trains public service lawyers, will administer this program, providing outreach to law schools around the country to select 30 or so exceptional law students who want to serve LSC civil legal aid providers in rural locations.

Students will be deployed for 10 weeks and receive an appropriate stipend for their work.

Providing legal services in rural areas is particularly challenging because of distance, access to transportation, and  lack of awareness.   Attorneys are often asked to travel several hours to appear in court with a client.  Clients may lack access to internet services or are unable to find a local lawyer to help them. 

The Rural Summer Legal Corps will increase the availability of legal services to low-income people in rural areas while developing the students’ skills in serving low-income clients and expanding their awareness of the legal needs of people in rural poverty.

A win-win.

Both the rural legal corps and disaster response grants are being supported with funds raised by LSC for 40th Anniversary Campaign for Justice, a targeted, private fundraising effort to try to expand access to justice, launched in conjunction with LSC’s ongoing observation of an important milestone—the 40th anniversary of our founding.

LSC was created in 1974 as one of the last acts of the Nixon administration, charged with a mission to help “provide equal access to the system of justice in our nation” and “to provide high quality legal assistance to those who would be otherwise unable to afford adequate legal counsel

LSC is the nation’s single largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans, distributing nearly 92 percent of its total funding to 134 independent nonprofit legal aid programs with 811 offices that cover all 50 states.

It awards grants to legal services providers through a competitive grants process and conducts compliance reviews and program visits to oversee program quality and compliance with statutory and regulatory requirements as well as restrictions that accompany LSC funding.

LSC also provides training and technical assistance to programs and encourages programs to leverage limited resources by partnering and collaborating with other funders of civil legal aid, including state and local governments, access to justice commissions, the private bar, philanthropic foundations, and the business community.

LSC-funded programs help people who live in households with annual incomes at or below 125% of the federal poverty guidelines, this year $14,713 for an individual and $30,313 for a family of four.

 Each year, these programs handle matters affecting nearly 2 million clients, 87 percent of whom do not end up in court.

LSC clients are 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.

Unfortunately, these vital services funded by LSC are now under threat in the face of historically high need and severely limited resources.

In 1976, LSC’s first year of full congressional funding when the percent of the population eligible for LSC-funded legal assistance stood at 12%, the fledgling LSC was allocated by Congress, 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.

Despite our best efforts, the FY-2015 allocation of $375 million this year is less than half of that.  Even 10 years ago, LSC’s actual funding was $400 million.

Since then, as LSC funding has been reduced and remained low, the population eligible for LSC-funded assistance has grown to all-time highs.

In 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.

Another 32.4 million people had incomes below that level for at least two consecutive months during the year and thus were eligible for our assistance.

In other words, nearly one in three Americans — 96 million people — qualified for LSC-funded services at some time during 2013 — a staggering figure. 

Not surprisingly, our grantees and other providers cannot keep up with this demand and are being forced to turn away scores of low-income Americans seeking civil legal assistance. 

In the face of all this, it is a matter of great concern to us that the U.S. House of Representatives passed a budget in June that would cut LSC funding by $75 million, down to $300 million. LSC estimates such a cut would force local programs to lay off more than 1,000 staff members, including 430 attorneys, and close 85 legal offices nationwide. 

The Senate later passed a budget bill that would fund LSC at $385 million, and as the budget process moves forward we will do all that we can to assure that we get the maximum level of funding.

As some of you have heard me say earlier, LSC funding has been little more than a rounding error in the federal budget even though the value it is entrusted to uphold—equal access to civil justice—deserves support that is far more than a fiscal afterthought.

Even as we seek the maximum level of federal funding, LSC  is trying to stretch every dollar as far as it can possibly go through innovative technology and expanded  pro bono programs, and through targeted privately funded projects like the ones we are so proudly here to introduce today.

Thank you so very much.  I want to take a moment to particularly thank our grantees in Nebraska and Iowa — whose representatives are here with us today — for the wonderful work that they do each and every day on behalf of low-income residents of their communities and for the work they do on behalf of the American justice system.