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Graphic: LSC Funding

Trump Budget Would Eliminate Funding for Legal Services Corp.

By Christina Jackson

This week the White House released its $1.15 trillion budget—which targets domestic programs and calls for eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts, low-income heating assistance, and the AmeriCorps national-service program; it would also reduce funding for, among other things, Environmental Protection Agency, medical research, help for homeless veterans, and community-development grants.

Another agency on the chopping block is the Legal Services Corporation (LSC). In FY16, Congress gave LSC $385 million—less than one-ten-thousandth of the federal budget. Our court systems are not designed for people to go it alone; cutting or eliminating LSC funding would especially harm the elderly, victims of domestic violence, veterans, tenants, and those in rural areas. And in many places, LSC-funded legal-aid organizations are the only sources of civil-legal services.

LSC President James Sandman remained optimistic that “the bipartisan support we have enjoyed in Congress for more than four decades will continue for years to come.” In the meantime, the proposal to eliminate LSC funding has drawn many rebukes:

Law Firm Leaders

Leaders of more than 150 U.S. law firms with offices in all 50 states sent a letter to the Office of Management and Budget Thursday, urging it to continue funding the Legal Services Corp. President Donald Trump’s proposed budget has reportedly put funding for the bipartisan nonprofit on the chopping block. ‘The pro bono activity facilitated by LSC funding is exactly the kind of public-private partnership the government should encourage, not eliminate,’ the law firm leaders wrote.

In the letter, which is addressed to OMB Director John Michael “Mick” Mulvaney, the law firm chairs and managing partners said that lawyers in their firms provide millions of hours of free pro bono service “to individuals in desperate need of assistance,” noting that they do this by working closely with independent legal aid agencies around the country that are funded by the LSC. ‘Our ability to provide pro bono legal services is directly dependent on partnership with legal aid organizations,’ they wrote.  The LSC, they said, provides essential support for the firms’ pro bono work because those agencies screen cases for merit and eligibility and train and mentor attorneys. In addition, low-income people living in rural areas often can only find free legal assistance through LSC grantees, they said. (The American Lawyer)

American Bar Association

The American Bar Association is outraged that the administration proposes to eliminate funding for the Legal Services Corporation in its budget and calls on every member of Congress to restore full funding. LSC provides civil legal aid to people who desperately need help to navigate the legal process. Without this assistance, court house doors will slam in the faces of millions of Americans, denying them equal access to justice.

Some of the worthy services the LSC provides include securing housing for veterans, protecting seniors from scams, delivering legal services to rural areas, protecting victims of domestic abuse and helping disaster survivors. Their offices are in every congressional district and they help almost 1.9 million people annually. More than 30 cost-benefit studies all show that legal aid delivers far more in benefits than it costs. If veterans become homeless, or disaster victims cannot rebuild, their costs to society are significantly more. (ABA News)

National Legal Aid & Defender Association

Today the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released a framework for the FY18 federal budget that recommends the elimination of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC). The OMB proposal would further clog courts with individuals who would be forced to represent themselves without the assistance of an attorney, and deny equal access to justice for millions of people in our country.

NLADA, the nation’s judiciary, the legal profession, and a host of other organizations are joined in our resolve to educate Congress about the critical role LSC plays in guaranteeing our nation’s promise of justice and fairness for all. Civil legal aid is integral to the effective functioning of our justice system, and to the principle that the quality of justice you receive should not depend on how much money you have. (NLADA Statement)

The budget proposal is just a proposal, and Congress will ultimately determine whether and to what extent to fund LSC. So take action: Call your Senators and representative and urge them to fund LSC for FY18 and beyond.

Christina Jackson (@CJacksonPSJD) is co-chair of our Issues Committee and Director of Public Service Initiatives for NALP.