Legal Aid Funding Is Not “Wasted Money”

starkeyby Carol A. Starkey

President’s Page

“No more wasted money,” is how President Trump has characterized his proposal to cut $54 billion from the federal budget. To get there, the administration has placed the Legal Service Corporation (LSC) and its approximate $366 million in federal appropriations on the chopping block. The President’s budget – released in March – eliminates this program entirely, a proposal that attempts to carve out the backbone of civil legal aid to the poor in this country.  The consequences of such a proposal would, at best, render those most vulnerable amongst us unable to properly access our courts for daily needs such as housing, health care or safety, and at worst, keep them from exercising their basic rights to survive in this country.

Last month, I once again had the privilege as your Bar Leader to travel to Washington, DC to meet with members of the Massachusetts delegation and advocate for the reinstatement of funds as part of a larger lobbying effort with the American Bar Association. Shortly after those visits, a deal was struck in Congress to fund LSC through October 1st. This is good news in the short term, but when it comes to access to justice, short term solutions are not nearly enough.

Quite simply, LSC provides necessary legal aid to low income individuals and families in Massachusetts and throughout this country at large.  The LSC is an independent nonprofit established by Congress in 1974 to provide financial support for civil legal aid to low-income Americans. LSC is a grant-making organization, distributing more than 93% of its federal appropriation to eligible nonprofits delivering civil legal aid. It is the largest single funder of civil legal aid in the country, including $5 million annually to Massachusetts-based legal services organizations.

The need for this essential service is undeniable. In the United States, 80 percent of qualified applicants – those who meet the income eligibility requirements and face serious legal problems – are turned away simply because there isn’t adequate funding to take them on as clients. This figure is unacceptably high. These are people, amongst others, who are our neighbors being wrongfully evicted from homes, women and children in our communities already made vulnerable by poverty trying to safely escape abusive partners, parents trying to advocate for a beloved child with special needs, and veterans, many of whom come home struggling with serious mental and physical health issues, trying to secure the benefits that are rightfully theirs, so as not to end up homeless.

This urgent need alone is enough to justify keeping this line item, which represents about one hundredth of one percent of the entire federal budget.  But what if Congress and the President also knew that preserving LSC would actually save taxpayer money and support the economy? That’s just what three independent economists conducting separate evaluations have found.

In 2014, the Boston Bar Association (BBA) released Investing in Justice, a report which showed that taking a preventive approach to legal issues would help families, save government funds and ensure fairness in our justice system. Simply put, investing in civil legal aid programs pays dividends by avoiding back-end costs.

The BBA report – representing the work and opinions of legislators, judges, business leaders, academics, and legal services representatives – is the result of 18 months of intensive research into the problems and unseen costs that arise when people do not have access to adequate legal assistance.

For example, in Massachusetts, when studying the impact on state expenditures of representation by a civil legal aid attorney in eviction and foreclosure cases, economists at The Analysis Group concluded that for every dollar spent on civil legal aid in eviction and foreclosure cases, the state stands to save $2.69 on the costs of other state services, such as emergency shelter, health care, foster care, and law enforcement.

In addition, the firm Alvarez & Marsal analyzed the costs of domestic violence and what savings could occur if additional civil legal aid representation was available in such cases.  They determined that every $1 spent on legal aid yields $2 in medical and mental health care savings, including $1 to the state and $1 to the federal government.

The Boston Bar Association has long argued that legal assistance is an essential service for those who are struggling to deal with the issues that go to the heart of their families and livelihoods, like housing and personal safety. But we can also make the case that it is the fiscally prudent thing to do.

Others can, too. We need our leaders – both in Washington and here at home – to understand that advocating for every American to have access to justice is not only a just cause, but a sound investment that is worth our resources.

As lawyers, you have a valuable perspective to bring to this issue, one that lawmakers will find substantive and relevant.  To that end, I’m pleased to share the Boston Bar Association’s podcast: How to Talk to Your Legislators About Civil Legal Aid, featuring an interview with Equal Justice Coalition Chair Louis Tompros of WilmerHale.

I hope you enjoy it, and then reach out to both your state representative and your senator in support of increased funding for legal aid.  Your voice is needed to tell legislators and others how much we care about legal aid funding, backed up by our findings that investing in civil legal aid actually saves money while improving people’s lives.

Carol A. Starkey is the president of the Boston Bar Association. She is a partner at Conn, Kavanaugh, Rosenthal, Peisch & Ford.