A report analyzing the 2020 activities of Legal Services Corporation grantees, which includes Indiana Legal Services, shows that even as federal funding for legal aid has climbed to $440 million, the highest amount ever appropriated, the number of cases closed has slumped and more than 70% of the assistance offered is classified as “limited.”
The COVID-19 pandemic deflated the number of cases closed in 2020 to 659,164, an 11.6% drop from the previous year, according to the 2020 LSC By the Numbers report. Yet, since closing 899,817 cases in 2011, the tally of cases completed has fallen below 800,000 and has not reached 750,000 since 2015.
Conversely, funding has been steadily increasing. The congressional appropriation to LSC has increased nearly $100 million in less than 10 years, rising from $340.9 million in 2013 to $440 million in 2020. Funding even grew as the Trump administration repeatedly proposed deleting LSC altogether from the federal budget.
Coupled with other sources of funding including state and local support, philanthropic foundation donations and IOLTA contributions, the total funding for LSC grantees topped $1.388 billion in 2020.
Lynn Jennings, LSC vice president for grants management, maintained that cases closed is just one of several productivity measures. Many LSC grantees are conducting clinics and outreach, she said, while noting a “main component” of what many grantees do is provide online forms for people.
“There are a variety of measures of productivity and cases closed is a large one, but it is not the only one,” Jennings said. “…So in a way, we put a lot of emphasis on (cases closed) but, in a way, it detracts from the other important work that we expect our grantees to engage in.”
Indiana Legal Services has been closing nearly 12,000 cases over the last few years, but in 2021 the total is anticipated to swell to about 16,000, according to Jon Laramore, executive director. ILS’ tally of cases closed was up about 33% as of mid-October.
The increase is being driven by demand in the areas of housing, unemployment and family law related to domestic violence, Laramore said.
ILS received $9.08 million from the Legal Services Corp. in 2020, which is 66.1% of Indiana organization’s total funding, according to the LSC report. An additional $4.65 million, or 33.9% of the 2020 dollars, came from non-LSC sources.
The two primary sources of non-LSC funding, Laramore said, is the grant from the federal Victims of Crime Act, which supports a number of LIS programs, and the revenue from the medical legal partnerships that the organization has established with medical providers in different parts of the state.
During 2020, when hospitals were contending with significant declines in revenue, ILS sustained the partnership program by using the $1.84 million it received from the Paycheck Protection Program to give their medical partners a three-month billing holiday. The federal money was used to cover ILS attorneys’ salaries during the period the hospitals were not charged for legal services.
“That, we thought, was a gesture of good faith to our really wonderful health care partners who were having a much more difficult time financially than we were because they couldn’t let patients into their facilities because of COVID,” Laramore said.
Type of help provided
Since 2011, LSC grantees have consistently closed 75% to 78% of their cases through what LSC calls “limited services.” This type of legal assistance encompassed such work as writing a letter or making a phone call to a third party. However, more than 80% of the cases falling this this category were handled with “counsel and advice.”
The remaining 22% to 25% of the cases closed in the previous 10 years were given “extended services.” That would include negotiating a settlement and representing a client in a court proceeding.
“It is up to the grantees to decide what level of service a client receives based on the resources that are available and the exigency, if there are any, of the circumstances involved in that,” Jennings said. “…So it really is (what the grantees are) seeing in their services area and the needs of their clientele.”
Also, Jennings noted the clinics offered by LSC grantees help by providing general legal information. People attending the clinics can learn how they can maneuver the judicial system to, for example, get a divorce or defend against an eviction.
Another kind of outreach that some LSC grantees have offered are legal kiosks. Jennings explained these devices might be installed in a courthouse or public library and provide a legal form along with step-by-step instructions for completing the document.
Asked whether providing self-help legal tools rather than access to a legal professional was a valid way to assist people with their legal needs, Jennings maintained LSC grantees would not have made such great investments in the tools or continued to refine the tools if they did not think pro se services were worth pursuing.
Moreover, she said, legal aid does not have enough resources to help all who ask. LSC’s own projected that in 2017, LSC grantees would serve an estimated 1 million low-income Americans but would be able to address the civil legal needs of only about half of them.
“Each and every day, grantees have to triage who they’re going to serve and how they’re going to serve them and what level of service they provide,” Jennings said, explaining the legal aid offices determine how to dedicate their resources by calibrating the number of attorneys they have and the kind of cases coming in the door. “It’s heartbreaking many days.”
Indiana Legal Services has grown its resources, namely in the area of personnel. The nonprofit has expanded its roster of 129 employees in October 2019 to the current 180, which includes 95 lawyers spread across the state in eight offices. The growth has been fueled by an extra $1.05 million that came from LSC in 2020.
Laramore said ILS will be able to continue to pay through the end of next year 15 employees who had been designated as temporary when they were hired. Whether the employment will extend beyond that, he said, depends on the 2022 federal appropriations.
As for kind of assistance offered in 2020, ILS provided advice in 75% of the cases, brief service in 9% and extended services in 16%. Laramore noted the extended services were down from 18% in 2019 which he attributed to COVID dampening the number of cases in the courts.
“We have tended to be a little higher than the national average on advice and it’s (because) we like to help everybody who contacts us,” Laramore said, “and sometimes advice is all we can do.”
Editor’s note: The last name of the LSC vice president for grants management was incorrect in the original version of this story.