Before I joined Legal Aid, I was an AmeriCorps attorney with a Legal Services Corporation-funded organization in Ohio that provides legal services to low income Ohioans in 32 counties, including mid-sized cities, small towns and rural areas.
One of the first cases I handled there involved a young mother who had purchased a manufactured home and was renting the lot beneath it from the seller of her home. When I met my client, she was current in payments on her home, but at risk of eviction from her rental lot because part of her rent payment had been allocated to fees. As a practical matter, this meant that she would also lose her home – and all of the equity she had built – because she (like many manufactured home owners) could not afford the expense of moving it if her family was evicted from the lot.
Working with another newly-barred “baby” lawyer, I dug into the case, discovering numerous violations of Ohio’s Consumer Sales Practices Act in the manufactured home sales contract. By the time we were done, we had discovered claims worth more than the outstanding lot rent and unpaid balance on the home, combined. Our client, who had come to us at risk of homelessness, walked away as the outright owner of her home, with a very affordable monthly lot rent.
She, like so many tenants facing eviction, had defenses to the case against her, defenses which she never would have known to assert without the assistance of counsel. That first case helped cultivate two burgeoning notions in my mind: First, my own love for civil legal services work and the impact a lawyer can have (even a very junior lawyer, who possesses more enthusiasm than expertise). And second, the critical importance of the Legal Services Corporation.
I know to a certainty that, without LSC, my client would not have obtained legal assistance. She lived in a semi-rural area and had no reliable transportation. She could not afford a lawyer. There were no pro bono resources readily available to her. LSC (along with AmeriCorps, another wonderful federal program that may also be at risk), paid my salary. LSC paid the cost of my gas when I repeatedly drove the 45 minutes to her home to meet with her and to have her sign paperwork. LSC paid for the legal research, the copying, the phone calls, the dozens of other small expenses that are critical to the work that we as lawyers do – the small bricks that ultimately built the wall between my client and homelessness. The reality is that without LSC, she’d have lost her home, the money she’d invested, and the roof over her children’s heads.
And my client is hardly alone. LSC funds provide critical legal services to hundreds of thousands of low income clients every year. Their services stretch the nation, covering both urban and rural areas. Services in rural areas are especially critical because, of the 500 poorest counties in the country, 459 are rural. In 2015 alone, LSC-funded legal services, staffing 812 offices nationwide, closed 755,774 cases. That statistic is huge. But it is more than just a number. It represents actual people, our friends and neighbors: victims of domestic violence who obtain much-needed orders of protection; homeowners who avoid foreclosure, thereby retaining not only a home, but also generational wealth; veterans who secure critical health benefits; families challenging unlawful termination of the benefits they need desperately to feed their families; and the list goes on.
But now, along with numerous other programs designed to assist those living in poverty, the president’s budget recommends stripping LSC of its funding, entirely. This news is staggering and devastating. Legal services are not only critical to the many people and communities served, they are also a sound financial investment: a recent study in the State of Florida found a seven-fold return on investment in legal services. Indeed, that study yielded similar results to studies in other jurisdictions which have found a similarly high economic return-per-dollar in Texas ($7.42), Iowa ($6.71), Tennessee ($11.20), and Virginia ($5.27). If anything, these numbers support increasing LSC funding: 50% of all those who sought legal assistance from LSC grantees were turned away because of the lack of adequate resources.
Legal Aid joins countless other organizations and individuals, including major law firms, the American Bar Association, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, and even the head football coach at my alma mater, in strongly opposing any cut to LSC funding. Although we at Legal Aid do not receive LSC funding, we are well aware of the critical work that is being done by our LSC-funded sister organizations, both in the Washington D.C. metro area, and nationwide.
This is not a partisan issue; LSC has long enjoyed bipartisan support, largely based on the notion that the justice system only works when everyone has fair access to it. Cutting funding to LSC is short-sighted and economically disadvantageous. But most critically, it will effectively slam the courthouse doors shut for hundreds of thousands of families living in poverty each year.