Civil Legal Aid in Jeopardy
September 24, 2012 | | Link to article
For years, low-income people have struggled with a huge gap between their legal needs and the capacity of the civil legal assistance system to meet those needs.
Last year, Congress reduced funding for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) from $402 million in 2011 to $348 million in 2012. In response, LSC-funded programs reduced attorneys by 12.5 percent, paralegals by 17.4 percent and administrative staff by 12.7 percent. Programs closed 29 offices in 2012, many of them in rural areas where it can be particularly difficult for individuals to find alternative assistance. As a result, the LSC-funded civil legal aid program served 81,000 fewer low-income Americans.
As reported in February, the President's 2013 budget proposed to restore LSC funding to the 2011 level. But because Congress hasn't passed a full FY2013 budget, the Continuing Resolution finalized last week will fund LSC at $350 million. This doesn't mean that LSC is safe from further cuts, though. According to the Report of OMB on Sequestration, LSC will lose another $29 million in January if Sequestration goes into effect.
The automatic, across-the-board cuts set to begin on January 2, 2013, by the sequester were intended to be a blunt and indiscriminate instrument that would inspire both parties to negotiate a compromise on a deficit reduction plan. Another $29 million in cuts to LSC would be very damaging. We hope the stark reality of sequestration, which has been widely understood as a negotiating tool and not a plan to be implemented, will have the effect of driving both political parties to compromise on a balanced approach to deficit reduction so the country can avoid the serious consequences of these cuts.
Both the funding level provided in the Continuing Resolution and the lower level required if Sequestration goes into effect are totally inadequate. Civil legal aid programs will turn away at least as many clients as they served in 2012 and will turn away even more in 2013. To keep civil legal aid a viable program that can adequately serve people in need, the program should obtain funding of at least $800 million, the level it would have been in 1980 dollars (when the program reached its high water mark in funding).