November 30, 2010
Vincent C. Gray
The Council of the District of Columbia
John A. Wilson Building, Suite 5
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20004
Dear Chairman Gray:
On behalf of the Washington Council of Lawyers, we write to urge the D.C. Council to refrain from making cuts to free legal services for the poor. Specifically, we ask you to reject the proposal to reduce the District’s access to justice funds by over 50 percent (from $3.29 million (the FY 2011 level) to $1.579 million). We also oppose a proposed $22,271 reduction in funding for the Loan Repayment Assistance Program.
We recognize that the current recession is taking its toll on local budgets, causing policymakers to make difficult decisions aimed at balancing budgets and ensuring fiscal health. However, legal services are critical to low-income residents who are facing a mounting number of recession-related problems that require legal assistance. With a history spanning more than 35 years, the Washington Council of Lawyers is the District’s only bar association dedicated exclusively to promoting public interest and pro bono law. Thus, we are greatly concerned about potential funding reductions that could reverse recent gains in improving access to justice.
Due to the recession, the need for legal services is rising significantly. A number of concerns have been identified, including (but not limited to) the following:
- Access to Public Benefits. Low-income families are increasingly in need of government programs that help with the most basic of needs – food, shelter, medical care, and income assistance. However, many experience access barriers. The city’s legal services attorneys are often the only source of help. Not only do individual clients benefit, but the District of Columbia as a whole does as well – e.g. legal services efforts to enroll children in Medicaid (federally-funded) as opposed to the Alliance (DC-funded) saves the city thousands of dollars each year.
- Housing. Housing has played a central role in the current recession, with many falling victim to bad home loan products, unemployment and other financial pressures that make it difficult to pay rent or mortgages, and unscrupulous landlord practices. Legal services attorneys assist with the prevention and mitigation of evictions and foreclosures, helping families and also the District. For example, in just one quarter, publicly-funded lawyers prevented 200 people from experiencing eviction, saving roughly $5 million in homeless shelter costs.
- Domestic Violence. Economic distress caused by such factors as losing a job or managing delinquent bills has been associated with higher rates of family discord and violence. D.C. legal services providers help victims with protection orders and other measures that improve safety and stability. The District benefits through reduced costs for public safety and medical treatment.
In addition, there has likely been growth in the number of people experiencing poverty and qualifying for free legal services because the District’s unemployment rate is high – 9.7% in the month of October this year. Growth in the poverty population is certainly contributing to increased demand for services.
Legal services organizations have been making a valiant effort to address this crisis of need while also trying to manage significant depletion in their own resources. Funding through the Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA) program has diminished. According to the Access to Justice Commission, IOLTA revenue has dropped significantly over the past two years, dropping over 60% in 2009, and falling even further in 2010. Furthermore, contributions from individuals and law firms have decreased, and private foundations have been limiting their giving. Declines in public funding would only exacerbate current problems. Decreasing costs on the front end as proposed will result in increased costs on the back end.
In recent years, the D.C. Council has been extremely supportive of free legal services for the poor, increasing its investments in this important network of organizations. Much progress has been made. We ask that you not turn back the clock on this progress at a time in which services are needed the most and organizations are increasingly finding it difficult to manage decreases in their available resources.
Taryn Wilgus Null
Washington Council of Lawyers