When Consuela’s grandmother died in December, 2015, the then 23-year-old medical secretary was understandably bereft. But her grief was compounded when, several months after her loved one passed, the owners of the Staten Island, New York, apartment complex where the pair had lived sent Consuela an eviction notice.
“My grandmother had spent more than 26 years in that unit and had never had any problems,” Consuela told Truthout. “She was never late with the rent and never caused any trouble. I’d lived with her for five years.”
Suddenly, however, in early 2016, the landlord began alleging that Consuela had no right to her grandmother’s apartment and wanted her out, pronto. “I was really worried,” Consuela says, but a visit to Staten Island Legal Services calmed her jagged nerves. “Once they stepped in I had little-to-no stress from the landlord and, though it took two years, I recently got a ruling in my favor. I won possession rights to the apartment. It was a long battle but the legal services people stuck it out.”
Last year, approximately 1.7 million people like Consuela went to offices funded by the Legal Services Corporation (LSC.gov) — the nonprofit agency established by Congress to provide money to community legal services offices — for no-cost representation on a wide range of civil matters: consumer fraud; child custody and divorce; protection from domestic abuse; access to public education; the improper denial or termination of public benefits, such as welfare, food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, disability or Medicaid; or because they were facing an eviction or bank foreclosure.
But trouble is brewing. In fact, last year — fiscal 2018 — Trump identified the Legal Services Corporation as one of 19 organizations to be completely eliminated. Although Congress eventually approved $385 million for the beleaguered agency, the same amount LSC received in fiscal 2017, the 2019 budget again proposes zero funding for LSC. Adding insult to injury, the budget suggests giving the LSC a one-time $33 million grant for the explicit purpose of dismantling the 44-year-old anti-poverty program.
Protecting a 40-Year Legacy
Since the LSC’s founding in 1974, legal services staff — lawyers, paralegals, social workers and investigators — have worked to provide poor Americans with access to civil legal representation. In addition to assisting individuals, high-impact cases are brought to change laws and improve protections for the most vulnerable among us. The focus of the work varies by locale and is determined by local need. While urban residents typically face gentrification and displacement, providers in states like Idaho or Oklahoma often represent sovereign tribal nations in cases involving land ownership or resource management. Similarly, rural areas often represent farm laborers in wage and hour disputes or when human trafficking is alleged.
Still, despite its breadth and reach, the LSC has not eliminated the disparity in legal representation and advocates say more resources are needed in order to sufficiently fund the agency.
“A lot depends on where you live,” James J. Sandman, president of the Legal Services Corporation, reports. “LSC funds more than 800 offices but the resources that are available to meet the needs of low-income people are inadequate. There are 59 million people in the US who are financially eligible for representation from LSC-funded programs.”
Indeed, a 2017 study conducted by LSC and the University of Chicago revealed a profound “justice gap.” According to researchers, the vast majority of people who are financially eligible for representation — meaning they live on less than $15,175 for a single person and $31,375 for a household of four — go unrepresented because of a dearth of available providers. Among them are millions of seniors, disabled people and residents of rural communities.
The study further exposed another brutal reality: at least a quarter of people living in poverty have at least one significant legal problem.
Not surprisingly, neither the Trump administration nor the Republican-controlled Congress seem particularly concerned about this.
Advocates, of course, see the situation differently and worry that Trump’s proposed cuts to the LSC will eviscerate the program, especially since resources are already so limited. “We know that about 86 percent of people who sought Legal Services’ help last year received no help or insufficient help,” Sandman says. “Most people don’t know that you don’t have an automatic right to a lawyer in civil cases.”
Last year, he adds, pressure from the legal community, state attorneys general, community activists, and religious and business leaders pushed Congress to restore the allocation. Whether the same will hold true this year is anyone’s guess.
Meanwhile, a number of lawyers throughout the country are doing what they can to provide the poor with high-quality representation and simultaneously raise money from outside donors, whether state legislatures, private philanthropists or foundations. But once again, there are huge disparities. Alabama, Sandman says, is one of a handful of states to receive no state money to supplement what they receive from the LSC. This, despite the fact that 900,000 people there — 19 percent of the total state population — lives in abject poverty. New York, on the other hand, gets $100 million in state money for community legal services; an additional $155 million, in total, began rolling out in 2016 and will continue to be disbursed in yearly increments through 2021. This sum is meant to provide free attorneys for low-income city residents facing eviction, a victory that follows a multi-year Right to Counsel campaign by housing activists.
However, even in New York, securing funding for legal support can be a struggle.
“Legal Services has been controversial since its founding,” Raun Rasmussen, executive director of Legal Services New York City (LSNYC.org) told Truthout. “Reagan tried to zero fund LSC; Newt Gingrich tried to zero out funding. After the budget was cut by one-third in 1996, we knew that we needed to diversify our source of income.” Thanks to support from the state’s chief judge, LSNYC’s coffers have been relatively well-filled; nonetheless, Rasmussen estimates that only one-third of the state’s LSC-eligible clients are able to secure representation.
Funding Crises Provoke Innovation
Doug Canfield, executive director of Legal Services of Delaware, (LSCD.com) reports that in 1995, funding for his state’s legal services program totaled $760,000. “In 2017, we received $765,000 from LSC,” he begins. “This is basically the same amount of money even though it’s 22 years later. If we adjusted for inflation, just to stay even we would have needed $1.26 million.”
Worse, Canfield says that the number of poor people in Delaware has spiked by 110 percent during the past 20 years, with more than 140,000 individuals currently eligible for LSCD services.
Fundraising has, of necessity, ramped up. Although LSCD receives money from Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts (IOLTA) — a fund that accrues when money is held in escrow, the interest from which is later distributed to local Legal Services providers throughout the state — it is the Combined Campaign for Justice that keeps Delaware Legal Services afloat. A joint venture between the Community Legal Aid Society, Delaware Volunteer Legal Services and LSC-Delaware, the Campaign has raised $18 million since 1999, $1.4 million in 2017 alone, and is now considered a national model of coordinated grant-writing. All money raised is divided between the three groups; they also divvy up the work, with LSCD taking on the majority of consumer fraud, unemployment insurance and housing cases.
“We try to represent every eligible person who comes through the door,” Canfield says, “but we are always looking for cases that might have broader implications.”
One recent encounter will illustrate.
After numerous people in the Wilmington area complained to LSC about a particular landlord, Legal Services of Delaware investigated. What they found was stunning. “One guy was running 15 to 20 houses for disabled people,” Canfield reports. “Each one housed between eight and 10 men and women. Many of the houses had no heat or hot water and several had raw sewage in their basements. If the tenants complained about anything this landlord would throw them out. People were paying between $400 and $500 a month to live in these horrendous conditions.” Even more appalling, Canfield says that this owner had managed to become the representative payee for many of the residents. “He was literally just taking their checks,” Canfield continues. “We sued and got people’s money back so that they could move someplace decent.” Legal Services also reported this man’s reprehensible actions to the state Attorney General for possible criminal prosecution.
Embedding Attorneys With Community Agencies
Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma operates differently. “We go where clients congregate,” Executive Director Michael Figgins told Truthout. “We have attorneys embedded in domestic violence shelters, health clinics, hospital waiting rooms and substance abuse treatment centers throughout the state. Additionally, we’re embedded with several Native American tribes. We also work with ex-offenders. Oklahoma leads the world in female incarcerations and while we can’t do criminal representation with LSC money, we can help with re-entry when people leave jail, help them get a driver’s license or contest housing or employment discrimination.”
All told, Figgins said that Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma now works out of 18 domestic violence shelters; seven re-entry programs for people leaving jail or prison; three homeless shelters; and 10 health centers or hospitals.
Additionally, the agency hopes to become embedded in food pantries and public schools. “People who go to food banks often have applied for and been denied food stamps; are disabled but have been unable to get benefits; or are not receiving court-ordered child support. If Legal Aid can fix these problems, people will have more disposable income and be able to live more stable lives. Similarly, if children can get into the special education classes they need, it might prevent problems from developing later.”
However, it takes money to do all of these things, and Figgins and his co-workers fear what will happen should LSC funding falter or be significantly reduced.
Clients throughout the country share these sentiments.
Nearly 1,500 miles away, in New York City, Dinora knows firsthand how important Legal Services assistance can be. An immigrant from the United Kingdom, she overstayed a tourist visa in 2014 and found her life unraveling after she married her American boyfriend and became pregnant. Undocumented and without the financial support she’d been promised, she panicked. “I got married in January 2014 and my daughter was born that August,” she says, “Once I became pregnant, my husband told me not to worry, that he would help me with my immigration status. He didn’t do this. Instead, he became more and more mentally abusive and financially withholding. He repeatedly called me an ‘illegal’ and threatened me by saying that as an American, he had more rights to our baby than I did.” The abuse eventually became intolerable and Dinora went to a legal services office near her home.
“I put everything to God and legal services,” she says. “They helped me divorce this man and get my green card. I am now working and went from instability and uncertainty to security and stability.”
Legal Services Corporation-funded offices hope Congress will do the same for them. And while outside grants to shore up online information and telephone help lines have been secured, it is up to Congress to restore LSC funding for brick-and-mortar offices, or destroy this essential anti-poverty program.
LSC President Jim Sandman sounds remarkably unfazed by the latter possibility. “I’m an optimist,” he says. “Educating members of both houses of Congress is key. When people understand the role of civil legal services, when they understand the merit of equal justice for the poor, they support the program.”
Eleanor J. Bader teaches English at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, New York. She is a 2015 winner of a Project Censored award for “outstanding investigative journalism” and a 2006 Independent Press Association award. The coauthor of Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism, she presently contributes to Lilith, Rewire, Theasy.com and other progressive feminist blogs and print publications.