US House chops legal aid budget

Keywords Courts / Government / neglect
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Budget cuts to legal aid funding approved June 3 by the U.S. House of Representatives could mean layoffs and office closures nationwide.

The lower chamber sliced the Legal Service Corp.’s allocation by 20 percent as part of the Commerce, Justice, Science & Related Agencies (CJS) Fiscal Year 2016 Appropriations bill. Under the House measure, the LSC would receive $300 million, a $75 million drop from its fiscal year 2015 appropriation.

The legal aid agency is estimating the funding cuts would force local programs to lay off more than 1,000 staff members, including 430 attorneys, and close 85 legal offices nationwide. Such reductions would mean 350,000 fewer people served and 150,000 fewer cases closed each year.

“We are disappointed that in the face of enormous unmet need for essential civil legal services among low-income Americans and other issues affecting access to justice, the House has voted to cut LSC funding by 20 percent to levels not seen since 1999,” said LSC board chair John G. Levi and Frank B. Strickland, LSC board chair during the George W. Bush administration.

Funding from the LSC supports legal assistance programs in all 50 states, and in Indiana the money goes to Indiana Legal Services. For fiscal year 2014, the Indiana agency received $6.53 million and for FY  2015 was appropriated $6.67 million from the LSC.

The CJS bill passed the House by a 242 – 183 vote. Among the Indiana congressional delegation, the vote was split down party lines with all the Republican representatives voting for the measure and the two Democrats voting against.

A U.S. Senate subcommittee is set to take up the FY 2016 CJS appropriations bill June 10.

“We recognize that this is a time of austerity but the foundation of our country and the integrity of its legal system are built on the concept that everyone is entitled to fair and equal access to justice, irrespective of their economic means,” Levi and Strickland said. “Because this is a core American value, we are hopeful that significant additional funds will be provided to LSC by the Senate or in a negotiated budget agreement later in the year.”

In its FY 2016 budget request, the LSC asked for $489.6 million which is about the same amount the agency has requested from Congress for the last two years. This request would return the funding levels to what they roughly were in 2007.

Under that level of federal appropriation, the LSC estimates Indiana Legal Services would receive $8.78 million.

However, Congress has not granted LSC’s budget requests in recent years. Capitol Hill appropriated $365 million in FY 2014 and provided a $10 million boost in FY 2015 to $375 million.

LSC, in its budget request, described the need for basic civil legal services among low-income people as “overwhelming.” U.S. Census Bureau data indicated 63.6 million individuals financially qualified for LSC-funded legal assistance in 2013, the largest eligible population in the agency’s 40-year history.

The number of income-eligible people needing assistance is expected to decrease slightly in the coming fiscal year but the agency expects the demand for legal help will continue to be near all-time highs.

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