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The Ladder

A Blog from New America's Asset Building Program

Preserving Access to Justice: Legal Services and the Safety Net

Published:  June 19, 2012
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The Legal Services Corporation (LSC), which provides funding to legal services organizations throughout the country, is an essential feature of the safety net—though rarely described as such. LSC funding is used to provide civil legal services to households at or below 125% of the federal poverty line. Unlike in criminal cases, where the right to counsel is constitutionally guaranteed for indigent defendants, parties to civil cases have no such right under federal law. In other words, depending on where you live, it’s perfectly legal for you to lose your house, all your possessions, and perhaps even custody of your child without ever talking to a lawyer, no matter how little money you make.

LSC-funded services are crucial in helping keep many families afloat. Yet perhaps unsurprisingly, like other social services programs, LSC has faced major budget cuts, and continues to see its funding attacked. Over the past three decades, LSC’s budget has been effectively cut by just around seventy percent. One member of Congress even proposed an amendment to the FY 2013 House Appropriations Bill that would have ended all funding for LSC, citing the organization as “nonessential” and alleging fraud (it failed, but received 122 votes in the House). Like the proposed cuts to SNAP, cutting LSC’s funding—or even failing to increase it—could have truly dire consequences for low-income communities nationwide.

A few recent articles describe the crisis facing legal services in greater detail, complete with startling statistics and anecdotes about legal services clients who would have faced devastating losses without the assistance of an attorney. I can add to this data my own experience of attending a conference earlier this month in California, Pathways to Justice, where legal services attorneys came together from across the state to discuss challenges, best practices and emerging issues in the field. A refrain I heard time and time again was that funding cuts were rampant and debilitating. It seemed that nearly every attorney in attendance had their own story to relate of having to turn away clients on a daily basis due to inadequate staffing and resources. Others have had to ration legal services, prioritizing the needs of the elderly and families with children (yet another way in which the safety net for single, childless people has eroded to nearly nothing—but that’s the subject for another blog post).

So how does this relate to asset building?

On a broad level, of course, access to an attorney helps many low-income people maintain existing resources and income. Many legal services attorneys focus specifically on public benefits, representing clients at hearings and helping them navigate the myriad eligibility rules and exceptions that may result in a loss of veteran’s benefits, SSI, SNAP and other benefits. Likewise, legal services attorneys regularly help clients avoid foreclosure and eviction, both through direct representation and by facilitating access to programs like HAMP, the Home Affordable Modification Program.

Furthermore, an increasing number of legal services providers are expanding beyond traditional legal work to assist clients with issues such as managing debt and financial literacy—and there is room for even greater collaboration. One of the most well attended sessions at the conference featured a presentation about debt and debt collection by Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County (NLSLA) , which has become a leader in developing the “self-help” model of legal services. NLSLA operates several free legal clinics through which debtors can get advice about their rights against debt collectors, what types of assets and income are exempt from collection, and how to represent themselves in bankruptcy proceedings (in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Central District of California, 28% of debtors were representing themselves in 2011, compared to 9% nationally).

These types of innovative efforts should be applauded. Yet the need to shift the focus to self-help is ultimately just one more symptom of the underlying problem—woefully inadequate funding for legal services.

The common counter-argument is that the number of private attorneys representing low-income clients on a pro bono basis is on the rise; while it was once a rarity, many firms now practically require a certain number of pro bono hours. Due to this shift, the reasoning goes, private attorneys will pick up the slack for legal services organizations. Yet for one thing, despite best intentions, many private attorneys who volunteer in this capacity are entirely unfamiliar with the field of law of their pro bono case; representing a client whose disability benefits have been denied involves a very distinct set of issues from, say, negotiating a leveraged buy-out. Consequently, using volunteer lawyers’ services just isn’t nearly as efficient as having more experienced legal services attorneys available.

Furthermore, this argument mimics the claim that cutting SNAP isn’t such a big deal since private charities and food banks will step in to take care of their communities. Of course, both food banks and volunteer attorneys will provide as much relief as possible—and should be recognized for that effort. Yet there is no way that charitable aid can come close to meeting the present need in either arena. With SNAP, even a cursory review of the scope of proposed cuts compared to existing charitable donations confirms it’s not a balanced equation. The House Ag Committee’s proposal earlier this spring would cut $133 billion from SNAP over ten years; by contrast, in 2011, the value of the food and grocery donations that Feeding America received to distribute through its food banks totaled just under $1.1 billion—less than one percent of the total proposed cuts to SNAP. Bread For the World recently put it in even more tangible terms—to offset the $133 billion in cuts, every church in America would have to spend an additional $50,000 a year on food for the next ten years.

The bottom line is, if you cut SNAP, more people will go hungry; if you cut funding to legal services organizations, more people will lose their homes, lose their benefits, and fall into a cycle of debt. Both of these outcomes are unacceptable.

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