Advocates for civil legal services took to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to highlight the widening justice gap at a time when President Donald Trump seeks to defund civil legal aid programs.
The Legal Services Corp., which doled out $385 million in government funding to 133 civil legal aid providers across the country in fiscal year 2016, unveiled a new report detailing the growing need for legal representation among low-income Americans and the inability of existing providers to meet that demand. Trump’s proposed budget, released in May, eliminates the corporation’s funding. (The corporation has requested $502 million for fiscal year 2017.)
American Bar Association president Linda Klein and University of Michigan head football coach and former 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh were on hand at the U.S. Senate Building on Wednesday to make the case for the importance of civil legal services. Harbaugh, who sits on the corporation’s Leaders Council alongside baseball legend Hank Aaron and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, said it may seem strange for a college football coach to be a voice for civil legal services.
“I may be a football coach but I am an American first and foremost and all Americans should care about equal access to justice,” Harbaugh said. “It’s not just Michigan and Go Blue, it’s Go Red, White and Blue. Also I like lawyers. I have a common goal with lawyers. My friends are lawyers. I’m a huge fan of Judge Judy. I know a lot about the law through that and attended a taping of her show.”
Fully 71 percent of households with incomes at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty line—the standard needed to qualify for assistance from corporation-funded programs—had at least one civil legal issue in the past year, according to the report, titled: “The Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-Income Americans.” (The poverty line is $36,000 for a family of four.) Yet, 86 percent of those households received either no legal assistance, or inadequate legal assistance, the report found.
“A full 70 percent of low-income Americans with civil legal problems reported that at least one of their problems affected them very much or severely,” the report found. “They seek legal help, however, for only 20 percent of their civil legal problems. Many who do not seek legal help report concerns about the cost of such help, not being sure if their issues are legal in nature, and not knowing where to look for help.”
The justice gap report is based on surveys of 2,000 adults in low-income households, as conducted by the independent research institution NORC, which is based at the University of Chicago. It also pulls from client intake data compiled by corporation-funded legal service providers.
Low-income Americans will approach corporation-funded organizations with an estimated 1.7 million legal problems in 2017, yet more than half will receive limited or no help due to a lack of resources, according to the report.
The most common civil legal problems low-income people face are health-related, at 41 percent, followed by consumer and finance issues, rental housing, children and custody matters, education, disability, and income maintenance.
A quarter of low-income households have experienced six or more civil legal issues in the past year, according to the report.
“This ‘justice gap’—the difference between the civil legal needs of low-income Americans and the resources available to meet those needs—has stretched into a gulf,” the report reads. “State courts across the country are overwhelmed with unrepresented litigants.”
Researchers found that more than half of low-income households with seniors, a person with disabilities, parents or guardians with children under 18, veterans, recent survivors of domestic violence or sexual assault, and households in rural areas each had elevated rates of civil legal needs—with six or more legal issues during the course of a year.
Yet, only one in five low-income Americans with civil legal issues seek professional legal assistance, the report concludes.
Contact Karen Sloan at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @KarenSloanNLJ