Civil legal aid funding at risk

Decrease in federal funding could hinder low-income Washingtonians in pursuit of justice

The legal system is a complex web of civil and criminal laws, procedures and rules. And for people who don’t have the means to hire a lawyer, the pursuit of justice is too expensive to bear.

That’s why civil legal aid is a crucial component of the legal system. Legal aid services help people who cannot afford an attorney navigate the justice system and provide legal assistance on everything from health care and housing to employment and consumer exploitation. It is often the only source of help for those who have experienced trauma and find themselves in positions of extreme vulnerability.

It helps victims of family and intimate-partner violence navigate the justice system and secure protection orders, according to attorneys with the Northwest Justice Project, Washington state’s flagship civil legal aid provider.

“Northwest Justice Project attorneys understand the life-long impact that legal protections from family and intimate partner violence has for everyone involved, especially children, and for the broader community,” attorneys with the organization said in a statement. “Our state’s strong support for civil legal aid makes it possible for NJP and partner legal aid advocates to provide legal assistance and representation that secures justice and safety for all Washington families.”

But legal aid services are under threat. Earlier this year, President Donald Trump proposed the elimination of the federal Legal Services Corporation, the single largest source of federal funding for civil legal assistance in the United States. If Trump’s proposal to eliminate the LSC were enacted, the Northwest Justice Project would lose roughly $6.5 million in legal aid funding each year.

Gov. Jay Inslee swiftly responded to the president’s proposal, challenging Congress to reject the president’s budget and labeling it “a betrayal of American values.” The governor drew the Washington congressional delegation’s attention to the detrimental effect the elimination of the LSC would have on the state.

Legal aid provides crucial justice system safety net

Originally conceived during President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, the Legal Services Corporation was established through legislation in 1974. While programs receive support from state funding and pro bono services, the LSC is now the single largest funding source for civil legal assistance in America and has consistently provided money for Washington’s civil legal aid programs for decades.

Outside of the LSC program, Congress in 2015 substantially increased the amount of Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) funding made available to states. That money comes from the U.S. Crime Victims Fund, which collects fees from people convicted of federal offenses.

The Washington Office of Civil Legal Aid, along with the governor’s office, worked to steer a portion of that money through the Department of Commerce’s Office of Crime Victims Advocacy to statewide legal aid organizations such as the Northwest Justice Project, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, and Sexual Violence Legal Services. Last year, the Office of Crime Victims Advocacy directed about $7.8 million in VOCA funds for legal aid services in Washington.

The new funding allowed legal aid organizations to hire dedicated crime-victim attorneys who work with service providers, law enforcement, prosecuting attorneys and others to meet the critical civil justice needs of crime victims, including people who have experienced domestic violence, human trafficking, child abuse, workplace sexual assault, wage theft and hate crimes.

Jim Bamberger, director of the state’s Office of Civil Legal Aid, said that the effort also resulted in the Department of Commerce to, for the first time, identifying civil legal aid as an essential service for victims of crime.

“The governor’s legal and executive policy staff have been extremely helpful in encouraging executive branch agency leaders to consider the role that civil legal aid might play in furthering important policy and consumer service goals,” Bamberger said.

The $7.8 million represented the largest one-time infusion of new funding into the state’s legal aid system in more than 30 years. It paid for 35 additional attorneys across the state, and has already helped more than 1,500 low-income victims of crime, an overwhelming majority of them survivors of domestic violence.

In one case, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office referred a single mother of a teenage daughter to the VOCA-funded Eastside Legal Assistance Program. The mother reported that another family member had sexually assaulted her daughter, and the woman believed her daughter needed immediate protection.

Legal aid attorneys helped the woman secure a one-year protection order for herself and her daughter. The accused, the girl’s father, was represented by a private attorney. He filed a motion to overturn the protection order, but the mother’s VOCA-funded attorney successfully blocked the appeal.

In another case, a man living outside of Washington contacted the Northwest Justice Project to report that his daughter was being sexually abused by her half-brother in Washington. The father sought to modify his daughter’s custody order so that she could live with him rather than her mother while authorities investigated the report. The man’s VOCA-funded attorney secured the temporary change of custody to protect the daughter.

Legal leaders ready to fight to protect access to legal aid

A 2015 Civil Legal Needs Study, commissioned by the Washington Supreme Court, reported that low-income Washingtonians often face multiple civil legal problems, but too often these low-income individuals do not realize that their problems are legal in nature, and they do not receive the help they need. In fact, more than 70 percent of Washington’s low-income households experience at least one civil legal problem each year.

Leaders in Washington’s legal aid community met in June in Yakima for the 2017 Access to Justice Conference to discuss the state of legal aid in Washington and collaborate on efforts to defend attacks on legal aid funding.

Northwest Justice Project’s Domestic Violence Advocacy Team, a group that helps domestic violence survivors with protection orders and related family law cases, won the Access to Justice’s Advocacy Award at the Access to Justice Conference in June. (Photo courtesy of the Legal Foundation of Washington)

Advocates have been working with Washington’s federal congressional delegation to encourage their support for continued LSC funding. As a result, most of the Washington delegation, including members of both political parties, support the continued funding of the LSC and have sent letters to the congressional subcommittees responsible for LSC funding.

Advocates realize, however, that the fight to secure and maintain reliable funding for legal aid is far from over.

Legal aid advocate and former president of the LSC, John McKay, has seen efforts in the past to eliminate the LSC.

John McKay, president of the Legal Services Corporation from 1997 to 2001, has experienced first-hand the struggle to preserve federal funding for civil legal aid. (Photo courtesy of the Washington State Bar Association)

“Ultimately, support for legal aid and access to justice requires bipartisan support,” McKay said. “Our system of justice presumes fair and equal treatment of the poor and marginalized in a court of law. Politics and partisanship cannot be allowed to distort this truth.”

By the next Access to Justice Conference in 2019, legal aid advocates hope LSC funding for civil legal aid will still be there.

Washington state’s 2017–19 operating budget approved this year and signed by the governor includes more than $5 million in new funding for civil legal aid programs, including money to pay for the full-time equivalent of 15 more attorneys.

Inslee said he will continue working with leaders in the legal aid and business communities and others to assure that federal funding for civil legal aid from VOCA, LSC, and other programs remain available to people in need.