The nation’s providers of civil legal assistance for the poor could face more staffing reductions and provide services to fewer people if Congress is unable to resolve its latest budget crisis by March 1.

Unless Congress comes up with a last-minute deal next week to avoid $85 billion in automatic and arbitrary forced cuts, called sequestration, the Legal Services Corp. will suffer a 5 percent across-the-board cut to its annual funding, agency president Jim Sandman said. Those cuts would follow two years of steep cuts to LSC funding.

The new cuts would mean a $16.3 million cut to grants to the nation’s civil legal services providers, Sandman said. The reductions would first affect payments in April. Since LSC is well into its current budget year, the monthly checks would be reduced 7.4 percent.

LSC, the largest source of funding nationwide for civil legal aid, conducted a webinar with agencies earlier this week detailing the nuts and bolts of the potential for cuts. Each state has different ways to add other funding to the programs, so each of the 134 agencies relying on LSC grants would be affected differently by the cuts.

LSC provides grants averaging about 30 percent of the budgets for seven New York state agencies. Those agencies helped 73,409 adults and 50,501 children last year.

The sequestration cuts "would be a big hit," said Raun Rasmussen, executive director of Legal Services NYC, which stands to lose $717,000 of its $14.4 million LSC allocation.

The group, which has a total budget of $40 million, would lose an additional $200,000 in federal grant money from sources other than LSC such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, IRS, and the Department of Justice for advice about foreclosure, taxes and domestic violence.

Finally, aside from sequestration, the group had been on track to lose 30 percent of its funding in the next two years due to regular, 10-year redistributions of funding based on the U.S. Census.

The Utica-based Legal Aid Society of Mid-New York gets 45 percent of its budget from LSC, meaning it stands to lose $95,778 from sequestration. It is now considering ways to make up those lost funds.

"We don’t have much control over this," said Paul Lupia, the agency’s executive director. "We hope that Congress and the president reach an agreement that doesn’t affect us as deeply as sequestration cuts would."

The organization has 24 attorneys to serve clients in 13 counties and farm workers throughout the state. It has lost six attorneys to budget cuts since January 2011.

Congress set up the sequestration cuts to be so odious that members of both parties would compromise on better ways to cut the federal budget. They avoided the "fiscal cliff" on Jan. 1 with a last-minute plan that delayed the automatic cuts until March 1. But in that time, Congress has still not passed a plan to avoid sequestration.

Last year, even without the sequester cuts, an LSC survey found the nation’s civil legal aid agencies were on pace to lay off 350 attorneys and 400 support staff in 2012 because of budget cuts from Congress and other funding reductions (NYLJ, Aug. 17, 2012).

Legal aid groups also are being squeezed because of reduced funding from other sources, such as Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts, known as IOLA funding. At the same time, high unemployment rates have increased the number of people needing help.

In New York, the impact of any cuts would be softened somewhat by the passage of a state budget that would increase to $40 million from $25 million court system grants to legal services.

"Our hope is that we’ll be able to get some of that funding that will lessen the impact of any sequestration-related cuts," Rasmussen said.

Moreover, to cope with the impact of Hurricane Sandy, the organization has done enough extra fundraising recently to tide it over should the cuts occur, Rasmussen said.

Last year, the Republican-led House passed a bill that would cut another 6 percent from LSC’s current budget. The House proposal of $328 million, when adjusted for inflation, would be an all-time low for the 38-year-old organization, according to a recent report from the Conference of Chief Justices.

The Democratic-led Senate Appropriations Committee approved the full amount of President Barack Obama’s 2013 budget request for the LSC at $402 million. That would be a 16 percent increase from the 2012 budget of $348 million, and would return funding to 2011 levels.

The two chambers never hashed out a deal.