Federal cuts would target civil legal aid for poor
February 27, 2017 12:00 AM
Evan Vucci/Associated Press
According to several reports, President Donald Trump’s budget proposal could eliminate the Legal Services Corporation, the largest funder of civil legal assistance for low-income Americans
By Kate Giammarise / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Funds for low-income people seeking legal help in civil cases — such as those involving domestic violence protection from abuse orders, child custody issues, evictions, mortgage foreclosures, utility shut-offs, and access to public benefits — could potentially become scarcer.
According to several reports, President Donald Trump’s budget proposal could eliminate the Legal Services Corporation, the largest funder of civil legal assistance for low-income Americans. Locally, legal services funds go to the Neighborhood Legal Services Association, Southwestern Pennsylvania Legal Services, Inc. and Laurel Legal Services, Inc.
Defendants in criminal cases are guaranteed the right to an attorney because of the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, but no such universal right to representation exists in civil matters.
In civil cases, basic human needs can still be at stake, however, such as those involving shelter, safety or child custody, noted Robert Racunas, Neighborhood Legal Services Association’s executive director.
His organization’s clients “include hard-working, low-wage earners; victims of domestic violence; veterans; the disabled; abused seniors; and the homeless, as well as countless others without the resources to afford legal assistance even when their need is desperate,” Mr. Racunas noted. The agency serves Allegheny, Beaver, Butler and Lawrence counties.
High-profile Neighborhood Legal Services Association cases in the past year included multiple cases on behalf tenants who were involved in lease-to-own housing contracts, as well as working on behalf of a resident who was one of a large number of people being forced out of a Robinson mobile home park. The Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General later sued the mobile home park owner for forcing residents to leave without compensation due them under the law to assist them in relocating.
Elimination of the Legal Services Corporation would cut $1.4 million from Neighborhood Legal Services, $607,000 from Laurel Legal Services and $416,00 from Southwestern Pennsylvania Legal Services. According to its website, the entire Legal Services Corporation has an annual budget of $375 million.
“It's a great cause for concern,” said Sam Milkes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network.
Renee Williams, executive director of Laurel Legal Services, said funds from the Legal Services Corporation represent about 40 percent of her organization’s budget, which serves Armstrong, Cambria, Clarion, Indiana, Jefferson and Westmoreland counties.
“Though our Constitution promises equality in justice, that promise is an empty one if there is not equal access to the justice system. Equal access to justice for families and individuals who have nowhere else to turn is critical and everyone should have access to the legal services and legal remedies — regardless of their ability to pay for an attorney,” Ms. Williams said.
“We provide community benefit to people who would otherwise be unserved and unrepresented, to people who are merely seeking representation in court and no special advantages,” said Brian Gorman, executive director of Southwestern Pennsylvania Legal Services, which serves Washington, Greene, Fayette and Somerset counties.
The Legal Services Corporation was created in 1974, though its origins were earlier — in President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.
Providing legal aid to the poor is not without controversy, and there have been previous attempts to defund the program.
In the past, such attempts have always been defeated, Mr. Milkes said.
“I think it is because members of Congress and our senators have known what vital services are provided on the ground to their constituents,” he said. “We are a key source of services who make sure our justice system works for everyone.”
Kate Giammarise: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.
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