Out of Luck and Out of Legal Help: Why Budget Cut for Services Is Wrong

Though a late-hour Congressional bipartisan compromise recently to fund government operations through September has been hailed by both parties, President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2018 calls for the outright elimination of federal funding for the Legal Services Corporation.

Founded in 1974, the non-profit entity, Legal Services Corp., controlled by a bipartisan board, and committed to providing legal representation to low-income Americans, remains under pressure for elimination.

Deleting this budget line would leave tenants without legal representation in cases against slumlord lawyers. Veterans and disabled Americans would lose access to counsel, making them easy pickings for government bureaucrats bent on canceling their benefits.

Congress needs to stop the defunding proposal.

While the budget proposal might seem like a way to save money, it could have the opposite result because indigent representation produces many economic benefits.

Legal Services Corporation funding resulted in the completion of more than 750,000 cases in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available. That comes with an annual price tag of $385 million, which is 0.63 percent of the President’s $609 billion defense budget. It is also less than 20 percent of the $2 billion he requested to begin the construction of a border wall, an effort that was rebuffed in the bipartisan compromise Sunday.

In one recent Wyoming case, attorneys funded through the Legal Services Corporation helped a homeless veteran, who was also a senior with a disability. She could not apply for benefits such as food stamps and housing assistance, because she had lost her social security card, birth certificate and other paperwork. Legal aid attorneys helped her obtain new copies of the documents and get back on track.

Individuals with an income of $15,075 or less are eligible for legal aid funded by the Legal Services Corporation. In 2015, Legal Services Corporation Funding resulted in representation for 128,839 seniors and 116,074 people who were victims of domestic violence. Even with the current level of funding, programs funded by the Legal Services Corporation must refuse help to at least half of the people who request it.

Nearly a century ago, William Howard Taft, who served as Chief Justice after being the 27th President, declared, “We must make it so that a poor man will have as nearly as possible an equal opportunity in litigating as the rich man.”

A person without a lawyer cannot possibly stand the same chance of defending himself or herself or holding a wrongdoer accountable in court as someone can with the proper legal representation from a trained lawyer.

While my work is not funded by the Legal Services Corporation, I represent indigent clients every day. The hardest part of my job is saying “no.”

I do not want to say “no” to clients whose family members have died. Or “no” to clients terrified of the violence that will befall their incarcerated sons. Or “no” to innocent people thrown in jail. I do not want to say “no” to people with nowhere else to go.

Unfortunately, “no” is a word I and other lawyers must often say to low-income people with good cases. That is because there is a massive gap between the number of people with good cases who need lawyers and the funding for attorneys who might provide them with critical legal services.

Even without the proposed elimination of funding, legal aid organizations are forced to turn away almost a million poor people every year because they lack the financial resources to help them. That number is equal to the population of San Jose, California.

The United States already lags way behind other prosperous democracies in per capita funding for civil legal services, including Sweden, England, and Canada.

Cutting funding for legal services would backfire in fiscal terms. The American Bar Association notes that “over 40 cost-benefit analyses demonstrate the valuable return on investment” provided by the Legal Services Corporation. Protecting domestic violence victims could save some of the estimate $4.1 billion paid on medical and mental health costs each year. Preventing illegal forfeitures keeps people out of homeless shelters.

Funding for lawyers also reduces court costs because litigants without lawyers require extra handholding by judges who are already stretched thin. Indeed, the Conference of Chief Justices opposes the elimination of funding in part because “the large number of unrepresented citizens overwhelming the nation’s courts has negative consequences not only for them but also for the effectiveness and efficiency of courts striving to serve these and other segments of the community who need their disputes resolved.”

To be sure, not everyone wants their tax dollars to fund legal fights in cases that challenge their personal belief systems. For that reason, federal law has long prohibited organizations funded by the Legal Services Corporation from taking cases in controversial areas such as the draft and abortion.

But in other areas where these organizations work — such as making sure veterans receive benefits, protecting victims of domestic violence, keeping people in their homes safe from illegal eviction — reflect shared values, not partisan politics.

Slashing legal services for any American harms our national values. America cannot be great without legal protections promised for all.