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Providers: Civil legal service cuts ‘devastating’

Proposed federal cuts to funding for legal aid to the poor would severely impact local providers that are already struggling to serve clients.

The House has passed a $70 million cut in Legal Services Corp. funding from the current fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. The corporation is a federal provider of legal services to low-income Americans. One of its recipients is Legal Assistance of Western New York Inc., which serves 14 counties including Monroe and surrounding counties from Lake Ontario to the Pennsylvania border.

LawNY Executive Director Kenneth C. Perri said locally that would result in a loss of nearly $240,000 — about 14 percent — in funding.

“That in and of itself would be devastating,” he said. “What really exacerbates that is that it’s current funding, so the cut would be double. We would have six months to absorb it as opposed to 12 months.”

Perri said conservatively speaking, that amount would fund about four full-time attorneys which, if cut, would mean 800 fewer families being served.

He said the proposed cuts come at a time when the need for public assistance has risen about 10 percent in the last 12 months and people are being turned away. He said reports by justice groups and Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman already indicate only 20 percent of people with civil legal problems are getting help.

Judge Lippman included $25 million in the proposed judiciary budget for civil legal services, which, he noted in his annual address Feb. 15, more than pay for themselves by saving state and local governments millions of dollars a year by preventing unwarranted evictions, avoiding foster care placements and curbing the cost of homelessness, incarceration and social services.

Perri said the proposed cuts are coupled with severe reductions in state funding last year and uncertainty about the level of funding for the fiscal year that begins April 1.

The House approved the funding reduction as part of its continuing resolution to fund federal agencies and programs through the remainder of 2011.

Perri said the current continuing resolution is in effect until Friday and that he has heard there are intense negotiations going onto to extend it through April 8. He said if agreement is reached, more cuts in domestic spending are expected.

“They’re talking about deep cuts,” said Bryan D. Hetherington, chief counsel of Empire Justice Center. “It would have a devastating impact.”

He said in addition to the lost LawNY aid, the Monroe County Legal Assistance Center subgrants a piece of its funding to the Volunteer Legal Services Project which is used for pro bono work.

“It would mean both a dramatic reduction in the locally available funding and a huge loss of funding for the pro bono providers so you wouldn’t be able to think of making it up with pro bono lawyers because there wouldn’t be anybody to train and supervise them,” Hetherington said. “It would be a real serious blow not just to the people who don’t get services but to the taxpayers” as well.

The New York State and American bar associations are calling for Congress to reject LSC spending cuts.

“Cutting LSC funding is a cruel blow to people who are already in crisis,” said NYSBA President Stephen P. Younger (Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler). “If our neighbors lose custody of a child, become victims of domestic violence or become homeless — all for lack of a lawyer — the cost to our government will be far greater than the cost of providing legal services.”

The House’s proposal, according to Younger, would result in a loss of more than $5 million to organizations providing legal services to low-income New Yorkers.

“Since the cuts would come mid-year, the true impact is equivalent to a $10 million cut over six months,” he said.

Younger applauded U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand for their continued advocacy on behalf of indigent legal services.

Stephen N. Zack, president of the American Bar Association, provided a four-page written statement Friday to the House Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies. He noted the basic promise of democracy is at risk if justice cannot be provided.

“President Washington wrote that ‘The due administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government,’” Zack wrote. “However, many different indicators show that poor and working class Americans are not getting the legal aid they need.”

He is urging funding levels for fiscal 2012 be at least $450 million

“Appropriations for the Legal Services Corporation is not just about funding another federal agency,” Zack wrote. “This is about providing legal services for the 57 million Americans at or below the poverty line, including 19 million children, who are eligible for assistance.”

He said the most important issues on the minds of Americans are jobs and the economic climate and the programs like LSC keep working class and poor people from falling into a legal and financial tailspin. He added that every penny spent helping families saves taxpayer money.

LSC, on its website (www.lsc.gov), notes the proposed $70 million cut is about 18 percent of its fiscal 2010 funding of $394.4 million. Under the House proposal, about 160,000 fewer low-income people would receive civil legal assistance and 80,000 fewer cases would be handled by LSC-funded programs. In addition, the cut would force layoffs of about 370 staff attorneys and shut down some offices in rural areas.

One comment

  1. I really hope that these great legal aid organizations are able to stay afloat. We need them now, more than ever. And, of course, the time they’re needed most is when they become political punching bags.

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