Even as the recession leaves more and more Americans unable to pay for legal services, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee is considering a proposal to cut federal funding for legal aid to the poor by 26 percent in the coming fiscal year. If passed, the bill would trim the budget of the Legal Services Corporation down to its 1999 levels and deprive 235,000 people of access to much-needed legal services.
As LSC explains, the measure could not come at a more inopportune moment:
“The proposed cut would prove to be especially damaging to low-income persons whose health and safety are at risk—the elderly, the victims of domestic violence, the disabled, children, veterans and others—by denying them access to justice…At LSC programs, requests for assistance are increasing. The poverty population eligible for civil legal assistance has grown by 17 percent since 2008, to an all-time high of 63 million Americans. And funding from non-federal sources is decreasing. This is not the time to undercut the fundamental American commitment to equal justice for all,” [LSC president] Mr. [James] Sandman said.
[...] From 2009 to 2010, foreclosure cases were up 20 percent at LSC-funded programs; unemployment compensation cases increased 10.5 percent; landlord-tenant disputes rose by 7.7 percent; bankruptcy, debt relief and consumer finance cases were up by nearly 5 percent, and domestic violence cases increased by 5 percent.
This attack on legal aid services for the poor, however, hasn’t been limited just to the House Appropriations Committee. GOP governors and lawmakers have also turned to legal aid when looking to make stringent budget cuts.
New Jersey Gov. Christie (R-NJ) drew fire last week for cutting state money for Legal Services by $5 million, forcing the nonprofit “to cut at least 50 staffers and serve at least 5,500 fewer clients.” Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL) vetoed a bipartisan provision to increase legal aid funding by $1 million. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) and his state legislature refused to extend a $4-hike in the state’s justice information fee that provided an additional $3.63 million for indigent civil legal needs over the course of fiscal years 2009 and 2010.
Even before conservatives began this latest attack on legal services for the poor, low-income American’s legal needs went unmet more than 80 percent of the time. These new cuts will contribute further to building a justice system where only the wealthy and the well-connected are allowed to participate.