50 Years of Service: ABA has been a 'stalwart ally' for LSC funding
Over the last half-century, the ABA has been a steadfast advocate for the Legal Services Corp., actively working to fulfill its mission of addressing the civil legal needs of vulnerable Americans and upholding America’s commitment to “justice for all.”
Established in 1974, the LSC celebrates its 50th anniversary this year as the nation’s single-largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans. LSC-funded organizations have more than 850 offices nationwide and serve thousands of low-income individuals, children, families, seniors and veterans. LSC-funded organizations help victims of domestic violence by obtaining protective and restraining orders; help parents obtain and keep custody of their children; represent renters and homeowners; and help veterans and military families seek access to the benefits they are owed.
The ABA has been a long-standing leader in championing federally funded civil legal aid, a commitment predating the LSC. Support from the ABA was critical to the creation of a federal legal services program as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.
An ABA study committee, convened in 1971, recommended a private, nonprofit corporation to receive federal funds and distribute them to local legal service programs. Lewis Powell, ABA president in 1964-65 and later a U.S. Supreme Court justice, ardently advocated for every American’s right to seek justice within our legal system, and his supportive efforts helped the eventual adoption of the Legal Services Corporation Act of 1974. After Congress established the LSC as the centralized entity to receive federal funds for civil legal aid nationwide, the ABA participated in the umbrella group that developed model regulations for the organization.
Since then, the ABA has actively and consistently worked to secure sufficient funding for the LSC, thanks to the coordinated efforts of the ABA Governmental Affairs Office, the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense, and state and local bar associations. It also has staunchly opposed attempts to reduce or eliminate funding for the program. At the 2023 ABA Annual Meeting, LSC Chair John G. Levi praised the ABA as a “stalwart ally and partner.”
Robust LSC funding is urgently needed to help protect the most vulnerable members of society. However, despite having bipartisan support in Congress, the LSC’s limited resources force local offices to turn away more than half of all eligible applicants, while the number of Americans who qualify for federally funded legal assistance grows.
In advocating for increased LSC funding each fiscal year, ABA presidents meet with House and Senate leadership and chairs of key committees and submit testimony to congressional committees and subcommittees. They also write letters to elected members of Congress advocating for LSC funding, and GAO staff meet regularly with senior congressional staff.
In fiscal year 2023, the ABA successfully advocated for a $71 million increase for the LSC over fiscal year 2022 to $560 million. During the pandemic, the ABA advocated for emergency LSC funding to aid those impacted by COVID-19, and in 2021, it supported additional disaster relief funding to the LSC, which Congress ultimately provided.
After then-President Donald Trump proposed eliminating the LSC in 2017, the ABA again mobilized collective support from the legal profession for the organization, with ABA presidential statements, letters, a social media campaign and a call for LSC supporters to register as “Legal Aid Defenders” on its website, DefendLegalAid.org. Despite the president’s proposal, Congress increased funding for the LSC for fiscal year 2018, thereby demonstrating its continued commitment to helping its constituents.
Advocacy for LSC funding has been a primary focus of recent ABA Days and will be again at this year’s event from April 9-11. ABA Day is an annual conference organized by GAO that brings together leaders of the ABA as well as state and local bar leaders from across the country to Capitol Hill to advance policy issues important to the legal profession. Special events will take place during the ABA Day celebrations to mark the LSC’s 50th anniversary. More details and an online digital toolkit with resources to help members connect directly with their elected officials are at ambar.org/ABADay.
The ABA is grateful to the LSC’s many champions in Washington, D.C. Together, we will continue to work with Congress and presidential administrations to increase federal funding for the LSC as it seeks to uphold America’s pledge to every citizen for equal justice under the law.
This report 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 U.S. government.