President Proposes to Restore Civil Legal Aid Funding, But More Is Needed

February 13, 2012

The Budget released by the President on Monday recommends a budget level of $402 million, a $54 million increase over FY 2012, for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC).  This increase would be targeted solely toward direct funds to civil legal aid programs and would fully restore the funding that was cut from those programs in 2012. This is a positive step forward.

Civil legal aid programs help low-income people and supportive groups navigate various civil matters like housing evictions, home foreclosures, predatory lending, child support, custody, domestic violence. They also help people access government benefits like Social Security, disability, unemployment insurance, food stamps, and health insurance. Without the services of a lawyer, low-income people with civil-legal problems may have no practical way of protecting their rights and advancing their interests.

Since coming into office, President Obama has supported increases in LSC funding.  He has also supported eliminating some of the onerous restrictions imposed on LSC programs in 1996.  The 2012 Budget also recommends eliminating the restriction prohibiting civil legal aid programs funded by LSC from bringing or participating in class action suits.

The restoration of funding for civil legal aid programs would help preventing further erosion of access to justice for low-income persons needing civil legal aid. Since 2011, LSC funded programs have reduced attorneys by 13.3 percent, paralegals by 15.4 percent and administrative staff by 12.7 percent. Programs will likely close 24 offices in 2012, many of them in rural areas. As a result, the LSC-funded civil legal aid program will serve 81,000 fewer low-income Americans.  These reductions come at a time when there is a substantial increase in those eligible for civil legal aid and an increase in such critical problems as housing foreclosure, unemployment, domestic violence and issues facing military Veterans.    

Restoration of LSC funding from the 2011 level is not nearly enough. Civil legal aid programs turned away at least as many clients that they served in 2011 and will turn away even more in 2012.  Funding over time for the program continues to erode. In fact, if funding today were at the same level as in 1980 (in inflation-adjusted dollar), it would be $800 million, nearly double the $402 million the president has proposed for FY 2013.

Access to justice for those who cannot afford legal assistance is an essential right in a modern industrial country. As Congress declared when it created LSC in the Legal Services Corporation Act of 1974:  "providing legal assistance to those who face an economic barrier to adequate legal counsel will serve the best ends of justice and assist in improving opportunities for low-income person" and will "reaffirm faith in our government of laws."    

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