Bar News - October 15, 2014
Opinion: Federal Legal Aid Agency Celebrates 40th Anniversary
By: Connie Rakowsky
The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) promotes equal access to justice and is the single largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans in the nation.
LSC is an independent 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation founded in 1974 that has a bipartisan board of directors whose 11 members are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. The organization provides grants for high-quality civil legal assistance to low-income Americans. LSC distributes more than 90 percent of its total funding to 134 independent nonprofit legal aid programs with nearly 800 offices.
According to LSC Board Chairman John Levi, LSC was “one of the last acts of the Nixon administration...LSC’s mission is ‘to provide equal access to the system of justice in our nation’ and ‘to provide high quality legal assistance to those who would be otherwise unable to afford adequate legal counsel.’”
In New Hampshire, LSC is the primary funder of the Legal Advice and Referral Center (LARC), which serves about 3,000 low-income and vulnerable clients annually, counseling and empowering them about their rights and responsibilities in courts and in other conflicts. Like LSC grantees nationally, LARC assists veterans, domestic violence victims, and individuals undergoing foreclosure or other housing issues. LARC provides a sub-grant of LSC funds to the Pro Bono Program of the NH Bar Association to recruit, train, supervise and thank lawyer volunteers for handling cases for low-income clients.
LARC provides legal information to more than 95,000 people annually on its community legal website, www.nhlegalaid.org, and provides intake and advice services for clients of New Hampshire Legal Assistance and the Pro Bono Referral Program of the NH Bar Association. LARC’s staff is equal to 13 full-time positions. Staff members employ the “teach a person to fish” model, building confidence in clients who would otherwise be intimidated or fearful of the courts. Like the support on the federal level, legal services for New Hampshire’s low-income community is a bipartisan affair. LARC participates with NHLA and Pro Bono in the joint fundraising initiative, the Campaign for Legal Services, which succeeds thanks to vigorous volunteer support from Republican and Democratic state leaders.
LARC Board Chair Jim Kerouac noted that “Poor health, unemployment, mental illness, and domestic abuse are issues all of us are committed to fighting against and advocating for these victims. LARC is grateful to have bipartisan support for LSC funds at the state and national level, carrying on the tradition of one of LSC’s heroes, Senator Warren Rudman, who vigorously fought for the very existence of LSC and the need for civil legal aid at the national and state level.”
Similarly, Levi noted, “We are grateful for four decades of bipartisan congressional support in pursuit of this mission. With the number of people now eligible for civil legal assistance at an all-time high – nearly 21 percent of Americans – we look forward to working with Congress to further expand its funding to help meet this unprecedented need.” Although bipartisan, support for LSC funding has dropped 25 percent from 1996 to the present, in 2013 dollars.
At a time when all sources of funding for legal aid are in jeopardy, legal aid programs are even more dependent on LSC’s funding and support. Federal and other sources of funding for LSC grantees have fallen while the number of people eligible for civil legal aid has grown.
The demand for LSC services is at an all-time high with 63.5 million Americans, including more than 22 million children, being eligible. Sixty-seven million Americans are expected to be eligible for legal aid in 2015.
In New Hampshire, about 250,000 people – 19.3 percent of the population – is at or below the federal poverty level, making them eligible for assistance from LARC, according to a study commissioned by the NH Access to Justice Commission. For them, the best hope often comes from a community legal aid program funded by LSC.
To recognize its 40th anniversary, LSC is launching a ground-breaking campaign to amplify the work of civil legal aid providers around the country, helping them keep America’s promise of “Justice for All.”
Locally, support for the Campaign for Legal Services would be greatly appreciated and help many people in our state.
Connie Rakowsky is the executive director of LARC.