Fedearl Policy Should Expand and Improve Civil Legal Assistance
Civil legal assistance for low-income people is crucial to ensure our nation's promise of "equal justice under the law." Legal aid helps to ensure fundamental fairness as well as to deal with the specific legal issues faced by low-income people in areas including family stability and domestic violence, housing, consumer health, employment and income supports, and racial equity. For example, studies have shown that of all the support services available to victims of domestic violence, only access to legal assistance decreases the likelihood that women will be battered again.
The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) is the principal funder for civil legal aid programs throughout the country. Funding for LSC reached $400 million in 1995, but later that year it was cut by 30 percent. At the same time, Congress imposed significant new restrictions on programs that received LSC funding. These restrictions, which placed severe limits on the ability of LSC grantees to fully serve the legal needs of the low-income community, have remained over the last 14 years. Funding has stagnated or risen only slightly, reaching just $420 million in FY 2010. If appropriations had just kept pace with inflation, based on its 1980 level of $300 million, LSC funding would have now reached $750 million.
In 2005, LSC conducted a groundbreaking study demonstrating a huge "Justice Gap" between resources available to support legal assistance and the need for legal services. A second study using the same methodology was done in 2009. Both "Justice Gap" studies showed that due to lack of funding, legal services grantees turned away more than 50 percent of eligible applicants who sought services. More than 80 percent of the low-income people in this country who experienced legal needs were unable to access services necessary to resolve their problems. As part of its 2010 Federal Policy Recommendations, CLASP recommends that the Obama Administration and Congress do the following:
Appropriate $530 million, the amount recommended by the American Bar Association, for LSC for FY 2011. For FY 2010, The Obama Administration proposed a $45 million increase for LSC to $435 million and proposed eliminating the restrictions on non-LSC funds, class actions and attorneys' fees. Congress appropriated $420 million, $15 million less than the amount the administration sought. The Obama Administration and the supporters of LSC in Congress must work together to insure that over the next several years, LSC funding levels will continue to increase significantly to close the "Justice Gap."
Eliminate the restrictions on LSC recipients. Despite significant efforts by the Obama administration and supporters of legal services to eliminate the restrictions on LSC grantees, for FY 2010 Congress eliminated only the restriction on attorneys' fees, leaving in place all other restrictions. The Obama Administration should continue to lead the effort to eliminate the restrictions imposed in 1996 on LSC grantees to enable them to fully serve the legal needs of their clients.
Appoint a new LSC board. The Obama Administration should complete the appointment of the bi-partisan LSC Board all of whose members will support these priorities and continue to improve the quality and effectiveness of LSC-funded programs.