Rep. Brooks predicts Congress will keep civil legal aid funding at current level

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Indiana Congresswoman Susan Brooks expects Capitol Hill will continue to fund civil legal aid at current levels despite a call earlier this year from the Trump Administration to cut all such funding.

Brooks, a Republican and co-founder of the bipartisan Congressional Access to Legal Services Caucus, discussed federal support during an appearance with caucus co-founder Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass., at the Harvard Law Forum Nov. 6. The video of the discussion was made available Nov. 14.

Speaking to the Harvard law students, Brooks said typically Congress has appropriated between $300 million and $385 million annually to Legal Services Corp. She anticipates the budget for fiscal year 2018 will include funding within that range.

“But quite frankly, that’s not nearly enough,” Brooks told the students. “…I don’t think there will ever be enough federal funding even at the level when it was at its highest which was in the 400 millions (of dollars).”

Money from Congress for civil legal aid goes to the Legal Services Corp. which then parcels the funds to 133 independent legal aid programs across the country. Indiana Legal Services is a recipient of LSC grants and depends on the funds for a major part of its budget.

In each of the fiscal years 2016 and 2017, the appropriation to LSC was $385 million. However, the funding is far below the amount requested. For fiscal years 2016 and 2017, the nonprofit asked for $486.9 million and $502.7 million, respectively.

Fiscal year 2018 is no different with LSC requesting $527.8 million for fiscal year 2018. Yet, the budget blueprint issued by the White House in March 2017 completely defunded the Legal Services Corp. LSC leaders remained confident that Congress would continue appropriating money and Brooks echoed that shortly after President Donald Trump revealed his budget, noting the legislative branch, alone, has the duty to craft and pass the nation’s annual budget.

Indiana Legal Services received $6.64 million from LSC in fiscal year 2017 and it has requested $9.27 million for fiscal year 2018.

“It’s not appropriate, it’s barely adequate but it’s important,” Brooks told the Harvard law students about the current LSC funding levels. “It’s important that we advocate for this and it’s tough during tough budget times but it’s critically important.”

She emphasized legal aid organizations should partner with other nonprofits that provide services for such groups as domestic violence victims, the disabled, and low-income households. To illustrate her point, Brooks recounted how the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic partnered with Hoosier Veterans Assistance Foundation to help a Vietnam veteran stop getting his wages garnished because of a past foreclosure.

“But it’s also important that we think about how are we going to do this different,” Brooks said to the students. “The federal government, in and of itself, is never going to be sole funder of these services.”

Even so, to secure funding from Congress, Brooks and Kennedy said advocates, especially attorneys and judges, need to share the stories of people helped through legal aid. Brooks noted, of the thousands of phone calls and emails she gets every year from her constituents, rarely does anyone contact her office to discuss civil legal aid.

“If you’re not a lawyer and you’ve never had the need for legal services, a lot of people don’t know that it exists or that it’s needed,” Brooks said, “So, I think it’s up to the legal profession and up to the bar to educate the general public about the need for these services.”

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