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Legal Aid Providers Appeal to Congress' Heartstrings
The National Law Journal
The nation’s providers of civil legal services put something new between the charts and numbers of next year’s budget request—the faces of children, seniors and veterans representing people to whom they provided life-changing help last year.
Page 14 of Legal Services Corp.’s proposed 2014 budget request to Congress bears the face of a 7-month-old infant wearing a baby helmet to form his skull. He represents a boy (identified by the pseudonym, “Ben”) whose application for the helmet his insurer denied as a “non-covered service” until legal aid took action through out-of-court negotiations.
Members of Congress and their staffs will also see a photo of a gray-haired woman illustrating the story of an 87-year-old retired home-health care worker who was a victim of predatory lending. And also a photo of an Iraq War veteran who performed counterinsurgency work overseas but who fell victim to a scam that ruined his credit.
Facing scarce funding next year, following years of lawyer layoffs and service cutbacks across the nation, the LSC is placing more emphasis on the stories of people like Ben.
“We’re always working on how we tell the story and how we explain to people why it’s so important,” LSC president Jim Sandman said.
As the budget process for 2014 budgets heats up this summer, the agency does not expect public appropriations hearings on its $486 million request. So LSC staff have been visiting Capitol Hill to explain the stakes to legislators. The organization is the largest source of financial support nationwide for civil legal aid.
“I think most people are unaware of the fact that a victim of domestic violence has no right to a lawyer, even if [the husband] has a lawyer because he controls the family finances,” Sandman said. “You can lose your home, you can have your children taken away from you, and you have no right to a lawyer.”
LSC has previously featured stories from the legal trenches in budget requests, but never like this. The revamped design puts more of a spotlight on what could be missed if the LSC suffers additional budget cuts. Cuts since 2010 have forced legal aid agencies across the country to eliminate more than 1,000 staff positions and close nearly 30 offices.
LSC drew a $16.3 million cut this year to grants to the nation's legal aid providers—about 5 percent of the budget—as part of $85 billion in automatic and arbitrary forced cuts, called sequestration. That was on top of years of budget slashing, from a historic high of $420 million in Fiscal Year 2010 to last year’s $340 million.
At the same time, however, the federal courts budgets also were slashed in sequestration, with federal public defenders facing up to 20 days of furlough before the end of the fiscal year on September 30. Federal court officials have appealed to Congress for $73 million in emergency funding, including $41 million for the federal defender system.
So far, Congress has granted the federal courts no reprieve from the cuts, even though they have a powerful argument on their side. The sequestration prevents the courts from meeting their responsibilities under the Constitution, specifically the Sixth Amendment right to representation for indigents charged with crimes, said Chief Judge William Traxler Jr. of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, chairman of the U.S. Judicial Conference's executive committee.
There is no such constitutional right for civil grantees. Sandman, however, said that LSC will have bipartisan support for its appropriation. “We play a critical role in the access to justice network in the United States, and I think we get considered on our merit,” Sandman said.
The White House recommended $430 million in funding for LSC during fiscal year 2014, an increase of $90 million over existing funding and $28 million more than the White House recommended for FY 2013. The House is expected to approve less spending, and the actual spending level will come out somewhere in the middle.
“I think the president’s request sends a powerful message about the importance of civil legal services even when budgets are tight,” Sandman said. “To ask for a $90 million increase over what we’re getting is an important statement about how critical our mission.”
And LSC added for the first time a $5 million request for the Pro Bono Innovation Fund, a competitive grant program to promote creativity in expanding legal assistance. It was added at the request of the staff of Representative Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who heads the House appropriations subcommittee controlling LSC funding.
For now, the nation’s legal aid providers are dealing with a $16.3 million cut to grants from sequestration, which translates into monthly 7.4 percent pay cuts that started in April. States have different ways to add additional funding to their programs, so each of the 134 agencies relying on LSC grants have been affected with differing levels of severity by the cuts from Congress.
Contact Todd Ruger at email@example.com.