Legal Service Corp.’s Levi putting spotlight on crisis in legal aid

Emphasizing that legal aid is having to turn away half of those who ask for assistance, Legal Service Corp. board chair John Levi is pushing to raise public awareness and ultimately get more resources flowing to legal services for low-income individuals.    

“The legal aid community does a tremendous job of talking to itself,” Levi said, noting few outside of legal services understands the “grave crisis” where he says currently 50 percent of those seeking help are being left to fend for themselves in the justice system. “The situation threatens people’s confidence that the justice system can work fairly for them.”

Levi visited Indiana Legal Services Inc.  in Indianapolis Friday to meet with staff attorneys and tour the John H. Boner Community Center to see the Consumer Advocacy Project, a joint initiative which provides financial education to residents on the city’s near east side. ILS is one of Legal Service Corp.’s grant recipients, getting $6.64 million for fiscal year 2016.

His stop in Indiana came about a month after LSC announced its new Leaders Council. Comprised of 40 high-profile and influential athletes, business leaders and attorneys, the council has been charged with educating people about what legal aid does. Members of the council include former Indianapolis Colts quarterback Jim Harbaugh, Microsoft Corp. president and CEO Brad Smith, author John Grisham and former White House counsel Harriet Miers.

The goal of the Leaders Council “is to put LSC and its grantees on better footing,” Levi said.

In the last federal budget, LSC received a $385-million appropriation from Congress. Levi and ILS Executive Director Jon Laramore pointed out that amount is less than what Americans spend annually on Halloween costumes for their pets.

And the money is not meeting the rising demand for legal aid. Levi’s contention that 50 percent are being turned away comes from the LSC’s 2009 Report on the Justice Gap in America but that finding has been criticized since the evaluation was done during the Great Recession when many people had lost their jobs and could not afford legal assistance.

LSC is compiling a new justice gap report which should be available next year.  

Adjusted for inflation, the funds the national organization initially received from Capitol Hill in the 1970s would equal $880 million today. If the LSC could get an additional $500 million, Levi said he would funnel the money to the field offices like ILS where the executive directors could decide how best to put the dollars to use.

Levi speculated the field offices could hire more attorneys, paraprofessionals and technology professionals to help more clients. But bolstering legal aid staff alone will not solve the crisis. Levi said the effort will also need more pro bono attorneys, better technology and perhaps a reimagining of the judicial system to simplify some laws.

The key to getting more funding, public and private, and lowering the number of pro se litigants in the courts is getting the story out, Levi said. The gravity of today’s situation “can’t be the best-held secret.”

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