Need for low-income civil legal aid highlighted in new report

Issue December 2005 By Bill Archambeault

Advocates of increasing civil legal aid for low-income Americans are hopeful that a recent survey by the Legal Services Corp. will spur greater government funding. Years of cutbacks, however, have left them expecting more of the same.

The report, "Documenting the Justice Gap in America: The Current Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-Income Americans," highlights the lack of legal aid available to the poorest Americans.

One of the most alarming findings was that for every low-income client served by an LSC-funded program, at least one person seeking help was turned away because of a lack of resources, and that figure only includes those who sought help. Research indicates that four out of five people who need legal aid don't receive it, either because they don't seek it, don't know about it or can't get it because of competition for limited resources.

"The enormity of the justice gap documented in this report means that eliminating the gap will require a sustained, long-term effort involving a partnership of federal and state governments, the private bar and concerned public and private parties," LSC's report says.

Massachusetts Bar Association President Warren Fitzgerald said the LSC report highlights the urgent needs of low-income residents.

"One of the most glaring inequities in present day America is the disparity between legal access for the wealthy and legal access for the remainder of Americans," Fitzgerald said. "This not only corresponds to the disparity between the rights of the wealthy and those of the poor, it is a major factor in causing that inequality. That inequality has been growing steadily and as it does, so also does the need for Legal Services funding."

Massachusetts was one of nine states surveyed in the report, with data coming from the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corp.'s 2003 report, "Massachusetts Legal Needs Survey."

MLAC Executive Director Lonnie A. Powers said that in Massachusetts, the situation has certainly not improved since 2003. Funding cuts over decades have left legal aid organizations stretched too thin to help everyone who asks for it. And when the rare boost in funding does come through, it isn't enough to make up for years of slashing.

"We did get a million dollars more from the Legislature last year. That was helpful," he said. "But we're still not up to where we were in fiscal 1992." Without adjusting for inflation, MLAC is still $500,000 short of where its budget was more than a dozen years ago.

Total staffing for MLAC-funded programs has steadily decreased. It's not just limited state funding, Powers said, but also a drop in private fundraising in 2003 and 2004. Some of that drop is because of the weak economy and some of it is due to the consolidation of law firms over the last several years, reducing the number of potential donations MLAC and other agencies can seek.

In fiscal 2002, there were 308 lawyers and paralegals in Massachusetts programs receiving funds from MLAC. In fiscal 2003, that number dropped to 286, and in fiscal 2004, it fell to 272.

Those cuts translate into tough choices, Powers said, such as determining which domestic abuse victims need legal help the most.

"The programs are obligated, because of overwhelming need, to set priorities," he said. "We have to push away over half of the people seeking legal assistance. We have to say we can't help. And the word gets out in the low-income communities. We've seen that time and time again."

Merrimack Valley Legal Services in Lowell has to make those choices. And because there's so much unmet need, "in family law, potentially every case that does not involve domestic abuse is turned away. We just don't have the money. That doesn't mean we can take all of those (domestic violence) cases either," said Executive Director Ken MacIver. "It's just triage."

His organization turns away roughly the same number of people as reported in LSC's study. The limitations of his program's $1.8 million budget has forced it to begin a regional reconfiguration in which different services are coordinated out of one office, for example, to maximize efficiency.

"We're reexamining the way we deliver services to clients," MacIver said, such as sharing resources and centralizing intake programs with other legal aid offices. The restructuring, which is being implemented now, will probably cost some money at first, he said, but he hopes that in the long term, the savings will stretch budgets a little further. And they need to go much further, with MVLS serving about 5,000 people a year in an area with more than 100,000 low-income residents.

"On the state level, we are still struggling to get back to where we were three years ago," he said.

MacIver says he's hopeful the LSC report can open up Congress' pockets.

"I'm always optimistic, so I've got to believe that it's going to have some effect," he said, though he's skeptical that civil legal aid for low-income Americans will get much attention in a year dominated by disaster relief programs. Increased funding from the Massachusetts Legislature is a more realistic goal, he thinks.

Meg Connolly, executive director of the Boston Bar Association's Volunteer Lawyers Project, says the LSC's estimates about unmet needs are well documented.

"We're probably meeting about 20 percent of the need," she said. "There's been study after study over the last 20 to 30 years, and they've all been pretty consistent."

Federal funding accounts for 98 percent of the Volunteer Lawyers Project's $1.8 million budget, with funding at a stagnant level while business costs and demand increase.

"Unfortunately, there is no correlation between need and appropriation and there never has been," Connolly said. While the LSC report helps to paint the picture more fully, she said, the report's grim findings aren't likely to lead to a significant infusion in programs like hers. This year, the Senate added $38 million to the $330 million the nation spends on civil legal aid each year. But that money was removed in conference with the House of Representatives, and now cuts to the program are more likely than an increase.

"We can absorb it this year," she said of the Volunteer Lawyers Project, thanks to planning. "We won't have to cut programs this year. But you can't keep doing that, particularly with the cost of business increasing."

"The need really has been documented over the years," she said. "We consistently show that there's a substantial unmet need and that we spend very little on civil legal services. There's just not much money to run anything."