Bar News - May 17, 2017
Board Perspective: Support NHLA; Contact Your Legislator Today
By: Scott Harris
While the right to legal counsel is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, that right is only for criminal defense and does not extend to civil cases. This is true despite the stakes in many civil cases. Civil litigants are often defending their homes, their livelihoods, their health care, and in domestic violence cases, their personal safety, and far too often, they do so without legal help. New Hampshire has long had strong bipartisan support for civil legal aid, starting the second IOLTA program in the country, and advocating fiercely for federal support for these critical programs. Bar members now have an opportunity to speak out in support of increased access to justice for people who need it most.
I’m sure you are all familiar to some degree with the work of New Hampshire Legal Assistance (NHLA). New Hampshire’s state-wide nonprofit law firm provides civil legal aid to our most vulnerable neighbors. Their work stabilizes household income, prevents homelessness, provides access to benefits and healthcare, and educates and empowers clients to advocate for themselves and their families in the future. Legal help is most important in times of crisis, when livelihoods, homes, health, and safety are on the line. Civil legal aid ensures everyone has equal access to justice in our legal system, not just people who can afford a lawyer.
In pursuit of their mission, the 33 staff members at NHLA – yes, only 33 staff, total – assisted 6,500 people last year. You might be wondering how. NHLA works closely with other organizations, including the Legal Advice and Referral Center and the NH Bar’s Pro Bono Program to ensure resources are targeted to the most dire and most impactful cases.
NHLA’s resources are supported by a patchwork of funding sources, including gifts to the Campaign for Legal Services, private and federal grants, and state funding. At one point, NHLA’s state funding totaled $1.7 million annually; it is currently at $1.2 million per year. The governor included a $300,000 increase in his proposed budget. This increase would allow NHLA to serve an additional 750 people each year. With that funding, NHLA would hire additional staff to improve access in the impoverished rural northern and western parts of our state. Currently NHLA’s offices in both areas are at bare-bone staffing levels. There are just three staff in the Claremont office and just two people serving the entire North Country. As we all know, these geographically vast areas are struggling economically. We also know that as more attorneys in rural areas retire, the pool of local Pro Bono volunteers is shrinking quickly.
So I’ve discussed the imperative for civil legal aid, and the impact on people’s lives the governor’s proposed increase could have. But civil legal aid also has an impact on our state’s economy. In 2016, NHLA helped New Hampshire residents secure $1.1 million in federal benefits and child support payments, recouping back into the state’s economy nearly the entire $1.2 million in state appropriation funding that was provided in the same year. NHLA clients used those dearly needed resources to buy groceries, to pay rent and utility bills, sending a ripple of economic impact into their communities. This doesn’t capture the additional economic benefit of avoiding further crisis and related costs such as homelessness. A 2013 study showed that legal aid prevented $600,000 in costs due to homelessness each year, for example.
Civil legal aid helps our country fulfill the promise of “justice for all.” I ask you to call your state legislators and state senators to share this message with them: NHLA is a good investment for our state. Please support the governor’s proposed funding for NHLA.
Scott Harris is President-elect of the NHBA.