Federal Legal Aid Funding in Doubt

by Vicki Jacobs and Gary Smith

Gary Smith

Gary Smith is the Executive Director of Legal Services of Northern California.

Vicki Jacobs

Vicki Jacobs is the Managing Attorney of the Voluntary Legal Services Program. She can be contacted at vjacobs@vlsp.org.

Among the more widely recognized programs like the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting slated for elimination in the Trump administration’s proposed 2018 budget, is a lesser known program that had its origins in the 1960’s War on Poverty. Successor to the Office of Economic Opportunity’s Legal Services Program, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) was established by Congress with the Legal Services Act, signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon in 1974. In a message to Congress promoting the formation of a national legal aid program, President Nixon described the work of legal services programs:

“Here each day the old, the unemployed, the underprivileged, and the largely forgotten people of our Nation may seek help. Perhaps it is an eviction, a marital conflict, repossession of a car, or misunderstanding over a welfare check each problem – may have a legal solution. These are small claims in the Nation’s eye, but they loom large in the hearts and lives of poor Americans.”

Today that relatively small federal program funds more than 800 legal aid offices throughout the United States, operated by independent non-profit organizations. LSC grants about $340 million per year to those programs charged with providing legal aid to the poor – defined under LSC rules as individuals with less than $15,075 per year in annual income. Legal Services of Northern California (LSNC), based in Sacramento, is the LSC-funded legal aid program for 22 mostly rural northern California counties; its service area is roughly the size of the state of Ohio.

During 2016, LSNC’s 60th anniversary year, attorneys in the program’s eight field offices closed 12,948 cases for LSC-eligible clients. In addition to its direct casework, LSNC provides community legal education presentations, self-help materials, and legal clinics which benefit tens of thousands of low-income and vulnerable residents across its service area. LSNC provides advice, counsel and representation to low income people in the areas of housing, healthcare, public assistance, consumer, family and education law. In partnership with its sister program – the Voluntary Legal Services Program of Northern California – LSNC pursues its mission to provide quality legal services to empower the poor to identify the causes and effects of poverty within their communities.

VLSP has enjoyed a long and productive relationship with LSNC. When LSNC’s predecessor, the Legal Aid Society of Sacramento County, was incorporated in 1956, it employed a part-time attorney who recruited a small informal group of volunteers to assist in client representation. The pro bono panel was formalized in 1981 when, under the leadership of local attorneys Jim Mize and Tom Eres, the Sacramento County Bar Association (SCBA) initiated VLSP. That effort was prompted, in large part, by very substantial funding reductions to LSNC as a result of the Reagan administration’s attempts to eliminate LSC.

In 1986, at the instigation of LSNC Executive Director Victor Geminiani and VLSP attorney Russell Austin, VLSP was incorporated as a joint project of LSNC and the SCBA to enlarge the referral program and enhance funding opportunities. Since its incorporation, VLSP has been funded primarily through sub-grants from LSNC, the State Bar’s Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts (IOLTA) program, support from SCBA, and private donations. The sub-grants LSNC makes to VLSP are made possible by what has always been substantial and reliable funding from LSC. If LSC is defunded in 2018, VLSP stands to lose 35 percent of its funding.

While the recent proposed elimination of LSC was barely mentioned in the many news reports analyzing the Trump administration’s 2018 budget, the end of federally funded legal aid for the poor would have an immediate and dramatic impact in communities across the nation. According to LSC’s most recent annual report, more than 1.8 million Americans were served by federally funded legal aid programs in 2015.

While LSNC has worked hard to diversify its funding base in the two decades following the severe LSC budget reductions of the late 1990s, nearly one-third of its annual funding still comes from LSC. That reliable annual funding provides the backbone of the organization’s budget, and loss of that funding would be devastating. Most of LSNC’s other funding sources only incidentally support legal services for the poor. Indeed, most of those funding streams require that services be provided regardless of the income or assets of the prospective client and focus on particular issues such as health care or pension law. Consequently, the elimination of LSC or a significant reduction of LSC funds would disproportionately impact the most vulnerable of LSNC’s (and VLSP’s) clients.

The impact would be particularly severe in LSNC’s rural counties, as LSC comprises more than half of the funding for legal services in those counties. Equal access to justice is a pillar of legal ethics. The threats to that ideal for the poorest among us posed by the proposed elimination of LSC have been met with strong opposition from the judiciary, law schools, and prominent law firms alike. LSNC’s advocates, along with their pro bono colleagues providing services through VLSP, have been heartened by the enthusiastic support of the legal community for our work and our clients’ interests.