Bar News - July 19, 2017
Legal Aid Gap May Grow Wider
By: Dan Wise
According to the latest draft of the fiscal 2018 federal budget released at the end of June by the US House, the federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC), which provides most of the funding for New Hampshire’s Legal Advice & Referral Center, would see its budget cut by approximately 24 percent.
The House budget rejects the Trump administration’s attempt to completely eliminate LSC funding for civil legal aid, but the substantial funding reduction, if it survived final budget action, would have a severe impact.
LSC estimates that its budget as drafted by the House would decrease funding for New Hampshire from $787,447 to $591,941, which would result in an estimated 1,272 fewer people being helped annually by New Hampshire legal aid programs, including the Legal Advice & Referral Center (LARC), which receives most of its funding from LSC. LARC’s small staff of attorneys and paralegals provides free legal services to eligible low-income people in New Hampshire civil matters, particularly family law (including domestic violence), housing, benefits and welfare. LARC, which provides most of its services over the telephone, assists many clients in representing themselves through coaching and preparing paperwork.
LARC Executive Director Breckie Hayes-Snow said she is waiting to see what the Senate version of the federal budget provides for civil legal aid. The Senate is usually not as harsh when it comes to LSC funding, but given the current political climate, civil legal aid program leaders are feeling uncertain about what the future holds. Hayes-Snow says that if the LSC budget is deeply cut, the damage will reach beyond LARC in New Hampshire.
“Such deep cuts would not only restrict our ability to provide direct legal services to clients but would also impose a significant burden on our project partners,” she said. “NH Legal Assistance and and Pro Bono rely on LARC to qualify applicants for services, prepare files for further services at those agencies, and provide support to clients who are waiting for additional legal services elsewhere. The impact of such budget cuts would be felt at LARC, but there would be ripples affecting the rest of the legal services community in New Hampshire.”
Such drastic cuts would widen an already wide gap between the civil justice needs of the poor and the resources to help them. LSC recently released the 2017 Justice Gap report that found that in 2016, 86 percent of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans went unaddressed or were only partially addressed. The study found that 71 percent of low-income households experienced at least one civil legal problem in the last year, including problems with health care, housing conditions, disability access, veterans’ benefits, and domestic violence.
Many poor people simply don’t ask for legal help even though their problems have a potential legal remedy, the report by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) said: “Low-income Americans seek professional legal help for only 20 percent of the civil legal problems they face,” with many people not knowing where to look for help or what resources might exist, or being unaware that their problem is legal in nature.
A similar report, funded by the NH Bar Foundation and published in 2012, reported similar findings with some 94 percent of the civil legal needs of the poor going unmet in the Granite State.
Responding to the LSC cuts contained in the House budget, ABA President Linda Klein issued a statement on June 30 that called on the Senate to increase funding for LSC.
“The ABA is disappointed in the LSC funding level proposed for fiscal year 2018 by the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee. The $300 million proposed by the committee is $85 million less than what the full Congress appropriated for LSC in FY 2017.”
“The federal role in equal justice under law is vital,” Klein added. “The ABA strongly believes that everyone should have access to justice and representation in our legal system. A fully funded LSC helps achieve that goal.”
Dan Wise is the director of communications and outreach for the New Hampshire Bar Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the NH Bar Association. More NH Bar Foundation news.