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Legal aid wages another fight to fend off big budget cuts

Posted April 1, 2019
12:08 pm

By Jeremy Noble in Crain's Cleveland Business on 3/31/19

Another year of federal budget proposals means another year of targeting the Legal Services Corp. for defunding as local legal aid groups remain continuously stretched thin.

President Donald Trump's budget for the 2020 fiscal year aims to shut down the LSC for the third year in a row, designating $18.2 million in costs to do so.

The LSC is the country's largest single funder of legal aid, distributing more than 93% of its funding — which amounted to $410 million in 2018 — to 132 independent, nonprofit legal aid programs.

Northeast Ohio has two main legal aid groups, The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, which focuses on Cuyahoga County, and Community Legal Aid, which serves eight counties in and around the Akron/Canton area.

Eliminating the LSC would cut 25% of the Cleveland group's $11 million projected budget and about 26% of Akron's $7.8 million projected budget. The bulk of funding for each is composed of gifts from foundations and individual donors.

While the loss of federal funding wouldn't outright cripple either group, it would result in them serving fewer people in need. The request for help is always greater than what each agency can meet, with about every other person who comes seeking legal aid typically turned down because of resource limitations.

The situations legal aid groups commonly address include reducing debt, bankruptcies, preventing foreclosures and evictions, removing barriers to education and securing access to things like health insurance or even personal safety as it relates to cases of abuse and assault. People who go to legal aid for help are in dire economic circumstances and could never afford legal costs on their own.

"Our federal, state and local governments have established rights for this country's citizens," said Colleen Cotter, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, which impacted 16,945 people through 7,297 cases last year. "But those rights are not self-actualizing. Without meaningful access to the justice system to enforce those rights, they can be meaningless. Legal aid provides that access and brings our democracy to life."

Past efforts to defund the LSC have not only been unsuccessful, but they've actually helped legal aid groups raise more money. In the wake of efforts to kill the LSC last year, Congress ended up approving a budget of $410 million, a $25 million year-over-year increase that was the LSC's largest since fiscal year 2010. The threat of budget cuts may have also aided individual groups in securing additional donor support. A recent campaign by The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, in fact, helped fund the group's first expansion since it settled into downtown's Warehouse District in the late 1970s, where it had been renting out space to a bar for extra cash.

The LSC reports that Congress recently expanded annual funding for the group to $415 million before Trump's budget marked the agency for dissolution. Its full 2020 budget request is $593 million.

"I believe that the bipartisan support LSC has enjoyed in Congress for almost 45 years will continue long into the future," said LSC president Jim Sandman in a statement. "We are grateful that Congress recognizes LSC's vital importance in ensuring equal access to justice and has increased our funding in each of the last two fiscal years."

Although private donations and federal funding have both grown some in past years, that doesn't abate concerns about a stiff budget cut, which would ultimately translate to less justice served for people in need.

"LSC support is vitally important for Community Legal Aid, and for legal aid across the country," said Steven McGarrity, executive director of Community Legal Aid, which helped 3,114 people through 1,306 cases. "The funding we receive helps cover the direct cost of representing low-income families who otherwise wouldn't be able to afford an attorney. But we also leverage their grant for donors and community funders who see the importance of supporting this work at the local level."

Click here to read the original story at Crain's Cleveland Business.