A criminal act by Congress: cutting the budget for Legal Services

June 29, 2012 | By | 1 Reply More

Last week I attended the annual seminar my law firm (the Simon Law Firm) puts on for the benefit of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri. We’ve done this for almost ten years, and I’m proud to be part of a firm that has raised a total of more than $100,000 for the St. Louis office of Legal Services.

What does Legal Services do for the folks it serves? The lawyers of Legal Services provide “high-quality legal assistance and equal access to justice to low-income people.” Consider this:

Our lawyers provide counsel, advice and representation to clients in a variety of domestic cases including orders of protection, dissolution of marriage, modifications, paternity establishments and child custody cases. Other legal needs are addressed as well, sometimes by bringing the expertise of lawyers in other specialty practice areas like public benefits, housing or consumer.

Image by Chanevy at Dreamstime (with permission)

In the area of housing, Legal Services does this work:

We represent low income tenants involved in a dispute with their landlord. This includes disputes over rent, lease violations, lease terminations, illegal lockouts, and habitability of the premises. We represent clients in matters involving federally subsidized housing rights such as Section 8 and public housing. We assist clients with homeownership issues such as mortgage matters, foreclosure matters, predatory lending, and restrictions on occupancy. We represent clients asserting their rights under state and federal fair housing laws to protect clients from discrimination by housing providers. We advocate for tenants whose landlords engage in illegal eviction actions.

In the consumer area, Legal Services offers these services:

LSEM accepts the following consumer cases: predatory lending practices, deceptive or fraudulent practices regarding the sale of automobiles and other goods and services, breach of warranty, breach of contract, wrongful repossession, illegal collection tactics, credit card defense and the false reporting of information on credit reports.

These are merely some of types of services offered by Legal Services. They offer legal representation regarding numerous types of critically important issues to millions of people who could otherwise not afford any lawyer. Legal Services offices provide a legal life-preserver for many desperate people.  Just imagine yourself without the resources to assert your legal rights in any of the areas described above.  Life would be a travesty.

Consider further, that the offices of Legal Services are being run on a shoestring. There are many people out there who they can’t help because they have limited staff, because of the lack of money. Consider also, that if you can’t afford a lawyer, you won’t get a fair shake in court–this is a sad inexorable reality.  Here’s what the budget cuts mean to the St. Louis office–1,300 clients will not be able to receive any services.

Consider also, that even though the Legal Services offices across the country can’t afford to serve huge numbers of low-income people, Congress decided to cut the amount of money it provides to Legal Services offices by almost 14% for 2012. How much money are we talking about?

The $348 million proposed for LSC in the fiscal 2012 budget takes the organization back to the level of funding it received in fiscal 2007. It received $420 million in fiscal 2010. . . . LSC, created by Congress in 1974, is the largest provider of civil legal aid funding in the country.

Therefore, Congress supposedly can’t afford $72 million. Let’s put that in perspective. Legal Services bureaus generally serve those with less than 125% of the Federal Poverty Income Guidelines (FPIG), which means those making less than $28,000 for a household of 4. This is very reasonable, it should seem. Households making $28,000 don’t have money to hire lawyers. I don’t have the exact numbers regarding poverty, but it appears that as many as 50 million Americans were living in poverty as of 2011. That means that Congress has determined that ($348/50) $7 per poor person per year is enough money to provide all these people with adequate legal assistance. Under the more generous federal funding from from 2010, it still would add up to only $8.40/person.  There are currently 311,000,000 Americans.  The 2010 funding of $420 million amounts to $1.35 per American.   Based on these numbers,  Congress committed a criminal act it cut its funding to LSC.

Let’s consider one more thing to put this budget cut into perspective. For the past ten years, Congress has spent $2 Billion dollars per week claiming to defend America through its military action in Afghanistan. That comes out to $1 Million every five minutes. This means that the amount of the budget cut from 2010 to 2012 for Legal Services amounts to only 6 hours worth of “defending America” in Afghanistan. This “war” is costing each American $321 each year ($100 B/311,000,000), which is 237 times more than each American is paying for the entire national contribution to funding basic legal services for poor people.

In light of what the U.S. is actually doing in Afghanistan and see here, we seem to have a serious issue with setting priorities in this country.  We’ve decided to let desperate people  (and their children) fester and fail instead of giving them any chance a fair shot to assert their legal rights, instead of giving them a fair shot at education, housing and all of the other things that the rest of us take for granted.

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Category: Civil Rights, Consumer Protection, Law, Social justice

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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