DCist: Proposed D.C. Budget Cuts Threaten Legal Services


Today in DCist, Jenny Gathright reported on the Mayor’s proposed 60% cut to the Access to Justice Initiative, which funds about half of Legal Aid’s work. The proposed budget would cut the initiative to $13 million in 2024, from $31 million in 2023.

“If there are significant cuts here, there’s really no way that we can absorb it without cutting staff and the services they provide,” Vikram Swaruup, Legal Aid’s Executive Director, told DCist/WAMU for the report.

The Council's Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety, led by Councilmember Brooke Pinto, has restored $3.85 million in funding for the initiative, thanks to significant support from Councilmembers Charles Allen and Christina Henderson. That still leaves the program $14 million short. Councilmember Pinto explained to DCist why these funds are so important:

“When we help ensure that somebody is not evicted from their home, that is helping us with our goal of preventing homelessness. When we help support a domestic violence survivor that is helping us ensure that that incident doesn’t later lead to a homicide. And so I think it’s really important that the whole council and really the whole government remembers and refocuses this conversation about access to justice as a real public safety issue,” said Councilmember Pinto.

The article also discusses how cuts to Access to Justice compound the effects of other proposed cuts in the Mayor’s budget that affect Legal Aid’s client community, notably the dramatic cut to the Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

“Fortunately, various Council Committees just took steps to address these cuts, but much more is needed,” Vikram said. “We urge the full Council to complete what the Judiciary Committee has started and restore funds for civil legal services and other critical programs for our client community.”

The report highlighted the case of former Legal Aid client Melissa Chapman, who secured sole custody of her children with Legal Aid’s help through a program funded by the Access to Justice Initiative. From the article:

Though people who are facing charges in criminal court are constitutionally entitled to a free attorney if they can’t afford one, that isn’t the case for people involved in civil cases. If you want a lawyer for eviction proceedings, certain domestic violence-related proceedings, or a complex custody battle like Chapman’s, you have to hire one yourself. She says her custody case ended up lasting two years — and was too legally complicated for her to handle on her own.

“Without DC Legal Aid, a lot of people would be left out to dry and would have no voice,” she says. Access to free civil legal services, she adds, “gives people a voice, and makes sure that they’re not railroaded or bullied.”

Full Article: Free Legal Services Face 50% Cut In DC | DCist

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