American Bar Association

ABA president testifies to Congress in support of Legal Services Corp. funding

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Linda Klein

ABA President Linda Klein. Photograph Courtesy of the Office of the President

“To strengthen legal aid is to strengthen the rule of law,” ABA President Linda A. Klein told the House of Representatives last Thursday.

Klein, also senior managing shareholder at Baker Donelson in Atlanta, was testifying in support of $450 million in funding for the Legal Services Corp., the federally established nonprofit that supports legal aid offices around the United States.

President Donald Trump’s budget proposed eliminating all funding for LSC, a possibility that the ABA has strongly opposed. Before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, Klein emphasized the vital role that legal aid plays for the poor—LSC’s mission—in the American legal system.

“Funding for equal justice under federal law is a federal duty,” Klein’s prepared remarks (PDF) say. “The federal funding to promote equal civil justice is the funding for the Legal Services Corporation.”

The beneficiaries of LSC funding are people with everyday legal problems but limited resources—the income cutoff is $11,880 a year for an individual and $24,300 for a family of four. Census Bureau information says 95.2 million Americans qualified for legal aid at some point in 2014, Klein’s testimony said, but studies show that 50-80 percent of those who qualify are turned away because legal aid offices lack resources. Those clients are sometimes sent by congressional offices, she noted, and often come from vulnerable groups including veterans, rural Americans, older people and survivors of domestic violence.

Access to an attorney is vitally important to ensure that those people have a fair chance in court, Klein said. She quoted recently seated Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch: “I do think access to justice in large part means access to a lawyer. Lawyers make a difference.”

Legal aid services provide far more benefit than they require in costs, Klein said. A 2015 report from the Tennessee Bar Association found that every dollar invested in legal aid there creates $11.21 in economic benefit, from outcomes like fewer foreclosures and less need for police protection of battered spouses. The ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense has collected similar studies from other states.

And the need for government funding is acute right now, Klein said, because the lingering effects of the recession have hurt funding from other areas, such as interest on lawyers’ trust accounts. Government funding itself was down 15.7 percent between 2010 and 2016, she noted, despite three years of modest increases. That’s at the same time that 25 percent more Americans have qualified for legal aid, the prepared remarks say.

The proposal to eliminate all funding for LSC has also provoked opposition from some state Supreme Court justices, over 150 law firms, some law school deans and some general counsel of major corporations.

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