Legal aid clinics are in danger. As part of last month’s budget compromise, the nonprofit organization Legal Services Corporation saw its funding slashed $15.8 million, 4 percent of its total budget. Initially, House Republicans suggested cutting the LSC’s budget by a whopping $75 million, but after President Obama suggested an increase of $30 million, both sides agreed to the smaller cut. But this marks the newest in a string of legal aid cuts that have left poor Americans vulnerable to the worst aspects of the economic recession with little legal protection.
As Marian Wang reports for Pro Publica, the $15.8 million cut in federal aid comes as individual states are equally pressured to make additional cuts despite the rising demand for free legal aid. Legal Services NYC, for example, lost about $720,000 thanks to this year’s federal budget. “You do reach a point where you can no longer absorb” the cuts, said Edwina Frances Martin, a spokeswoman for Legal Services NYC.
The same is true for California legal aid clinics, which have endured a streak of near-debilitating cuts over the past decade. In addition to cuts in federal funds from the LSC, California legal aid clinics are threatened by an even more significant decline to the state-based Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts, which collects interest from funds that lawyers hold temporarily for their clients to be distributed to people in need of legal aid. Nationwide, this fund dropped 75% from $371 million in 2007 to $92 million in 2009. In California, the fund dropped sharply from $22 million in 2008 to $7 million a year later, reports the San Francisco Recorder.
The drop in legal aid funding should be considered a serious obstacle to making sure that “our justice system works for the millions of Americans who are among the most vulnerable in our society and that we fulfill our national promise of equal access to justice,” said LSC Board Chairman John Levi earlier this year. LSC President James Sandman added “More people need legal services than ever because of the recession, high unemployment, and the slow economic recovery.”