Laura Klein Abel
Two Victories for People Concerned About Equal Justice in America
by Laura K. Abel & David Pedulla
Last week marked two important victories for the civil legal services community and those who care about the rights of low-income people. The United States House of Representatives voted to substantially increase funding for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), and the Governor of New York, for the first time ever, allocated funding for civil legal aid in his Executive Budget. These events are good news for low-income people, who are often left without the legal representation they need in high stakes civil matters. Legal services truly improve the lives of low-income people and make society as a whole a better place to live. For example, researchers have found that the increased provision of legal services was one of the key factors in the decline in domestic violence in the 1990s. Similarly, civil legal services help people stay in their homes, maintain custody of their children, and ensure that they receive the wages that they deserve.
The House of Representatives’ proposed funding level would increase the money allocated to LSC by over $20 million, to $348.5 million for fiscal year 2007. If the House’s recommendation is approved by the United States Senate and President Bush, it would be the first increase in LSC funds since fiscal year 2003. Over time, the federal appropriation for LSC has dramatically declined. In inflation adjusted dollars, LSC today receives just 49 percent of what it did in 1981. And, the decrease in funding has not coincided with a decrease in need. Respected studies show that over four-fifths of the civil legal needs of low-income families go unmet. The $348.5 million recommended by the House of Representatives is a good start, but it is by no means enough to meet all of the civil legal needs of low-income people. Efforts to continue to increase funding for low-income people must continue.
Additionally, the Statewide Campaign for Civil Legal Services, a coalition of 34 legal services programs from across New York, successfully advocated for the Governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer, to include $9.6 million for civil legal services in his Executive Budget released last week. This is the first time a New York governor’s Executive Budget has allocated money to civil legal aid organizations. In the past, advocates were forced to turn to the New York Legislature each year to secure legal aid funding, making it impossible for civil legal aid organizations to know how much funding they would receive each year. This in turn made it difficult for them to plan their activities over the long term.
Including funding for civil legal aid in the Executive Budget brings New York closer to being in line with other states’ policies. New York, however, still has a ways to go in terms of funding legal services at a level that actually addresses the needs of low-income people. Since 1995, when Congress drastically reduced funding for civil legal aid programs, state governments have begun picking up the slack. Currently, over 26 states make direct state budget appropriations to fund civil legal services for low-income people. And nationally, state funding is the third largest source of money for legal aid programs. Spitzer’s allocation of funds is an important first step, but as Anne Erickson, President and CEO of the New York-based Empire Justice Center, says, “While we’re pleased this step’s been taken, we view it as just that: a step, albeit an important one. We need the Governor and Legislature to continue to build on this foundation. The Governor’s proposal still falls short of the $50 million that’s necessary to really begin ensuring more access to justice for those who need it”.
The potential increase in funding at the federal level and the allocation of funds at the state level are big victories for low-income people, the civil justice community, and society at large. There is still much work left to be done, however, to ensure that access to justice exists for low-income people in the United States.