Report from Governmental Affairs

It’s That Time Again

For more than 30 years, it has been a rite of spring for the ABA, state and local bar associations, state supreme courts, and other legal groups to call on Congress to provide adequate funding to the Legal Services Corp. in the upcoming fiscal year.

During those years, the LSC has been a top issue for the organized bar because the corporation plays a crucial role in supporting local agencies that provide civil legal services to those who can’t afford to hire private attorneys.

During the current 2006 federal fiscal year, LSC grants –which are made on a competitive basis–support 140 programs reaching into every congressional district in the United States and its territories.

This year, the number of Americans eligible for federally funded legal assistance is at an all-time high of 43 million. But at least half of all eligible people who seek legal services from LSC-funded programs are turned away because those programs lack resources, according to an LSC report, “Documenting the Justice Gap in America,” that was issued in 2005 with the approval of the corporation’s board of directors. And the demand for legal services has increased in the wake of natural disasters like hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Clients of LSC-funded programs include the working poor, veterans and people with disabilities. Women, many who have dependent children and have been victims of domestic violence, represent up to 74 percent of the client base of the programs. Low-income military families also qualify for legal aid.

Funding Roller Coaster

Support from the ABA, other bar associations and individual lawyers helped the LSC survive a drastic budget cut imposed by Congress in 1996 that slashed the corporation’s funding from $415 million–its highest level ever–to $278 million.

By fiscal year 2003, LSC funding was back up to $338.8 million as the corporation earned bipartisan congressional endorsement, the backing of the Bush administration and public support.

Getting Congress to approve adequate funding for the LSC nevertheless remains a challenge in the face of an escalating budget deficit, and funding has declined again since 2003. Across-the-board federal budget cuts reduced the corporation’s funding from its 2005 level of $330.8 million to $326.5 million for the 2006 fiscal year.

Congress already has begun consideration of the 2007 fiscal year budget, and the bipartisan LSC board that was appointed by President Bush has recommended that the corporation’s funding be increased to $411 million.

As in recent years, LSC appropriations will be a priority issue on May 3-4, when representatives of the association and other bar leaders gather in Washington, D.C., for the annual ABA Day lobbying effort on Capitol Hill.

The legal profession’s message to Congress will be clear, says Deborah G. Hankinson of Dallas, a former justice of the Texas Supreme Court who currently serves as a member of the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants.

“Despite the combined efforts of LSC-funded legal programs, private attorneys and bar associations, up to 80 percent of the basic civil legal needs of the poor are not being met,” Hankinson says. “Additional resources for LSC are critical so that the justice system can protect and serve the most vulnerable in our society, including victims of domestic violence and their children, the elderly who have housing and consumer issues, and veterans wrongfully denied benefits or medical treatment.”

This column is written by the ABA Governmental Affairs Office and discusses advocacy efforts by the ABA relating to issues being addressed by Congress and the executive branch of the federal government.

Rhonda McMillion is editor of Washington Letter, an ABA Governmental Affairs Office publication.

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