It’s a problem that never goes away.
As the economy struggles and a growing number of Americans face legal problems, legal aid organizations across the country are battling a severe funding crisis compounded by state and federal budget deficits, low interest rates, and increased demand for services.
The crisis is multi-dimensional: Legal aid organizations continue to suffer from low state revenues due to a decline in interest rates that affect funding from Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA). In addition, state and federal budget deficits mean that legal aid organizations are being subjected to the same rounds of cuts as other much-needed programs. When combined with a struggling economy that continues to make more people eligible and in need of legal services, legal aid organizations are being faced with the problem of an exploding demand and potentially devastating cut in supply.
On the state level, budget proposals in Texas aim to cut funding for basic civil legal services by 51% — or $23 million over the biennium. On the federal level, some proposals cut funding for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the federal entity that regulates civil legal aid organizations, entirely. More recent proposals aim to cut the organization’s funding by 18%.
For legal aid organizations like Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA), the future looks troubling.
In response to the funding crisis, several entities have stepped forward to lead the fight to continue access to justice for the poor. On the federal level, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) has succeeded in defeating the proposal to eliminate all funding for basic civil legal services. And a budget proposed by the White House actually increases LSC funding for FY2012. But the fight to avoid a cut of 18%, or approximately $70 million, for the remainder of FY2011 continues.
That’s devastating news. According to LSC a $70 million cut means that an estimated160,000 fewer low-income people will have the access to justice they need to save their homes, get away from an abuser, or fight for their legal rights. LSC also estimates that the funding cut would put approximately 370 legal aid attorneys out of a job.
According to current LSC President James J. Sandman, “Our country cannot sacrifice equal access to justice to any year’s fiscal pressures.” LSC currently provides funding to 136 legal aid organizations like TRLA.
On the state level the Texas Access to Justice Foundation and Texas Access to Justice Commission have spearheaded the fight for legal services funding. Much like their campaign two years ago, TAJF and TAJC have garnered the support of leaders of the State Bar of Texas and Supreme Court of Texas to aid in the campaign.
In February the groups held a press conference at the Texas Capitol to review the funding crisis and release a legislative agenda aimed at easing the pain of a decline in IOLTA revenues. Four proposals were presented to develop new sources of income for legal aid providers. The proposals include plans to establish a mortgage foreclosure fee, increase District Court filing fees, and establish new fees related to non-judicial filings. Representative Pete Gallego and Senator Jose Rodriguez joined the organizations at the event.
For Texas RioGrande Legal Aid the combination of cuts on both the state and federal levels threatens to cut TRLA’s budget significantly. In order to accommodate to the funding cuts, organizational changes will undoubtedly result in an increase in the number of applicants we have to turn away. At current funding levels TRLA turns way one-third of applicants solely due to our lack of resources.
According to TRLA Executive Director David Hall, “Justice should not be rationed in a tough economy. These funding cuts will be devastating for low-income Texans.”
The next few months will be key to fighting for legal aid funding. Regardless of the outcome, it is clear that the efforts of private attorneys will be critical to meeting the continued skyrocketing need for basic civil legal aid services in Texas. In an acknowledgment of that fact, several organizations representing the private bar have proclaimed their support for legal aid in recent months. In Texas those supporters include the Texas Young Lawyer Association, State Bar of Texas, and Hidalgo County Bar Association.
“We’re going to need all the help we can get,” added Hall. “The private bar will be critical to meeting the needs of people in desperate situations.”
Now more than ever, private attorneys and TRLA supporters are encouraged to join the fight for access to justice. To make a donation to Texas RioGrande Legal Aid or get more information on how to volunteer with your local pro bono program, visit us online at www.trla.org.