Spending package contains historic appropriation for legal aid

With the president’s signature on the $2.3 trillion spending bill, the Legal Services Corporation is set to receive $465 million, the largest appropriation in actual dollars for the organization in its history.

LSC will funnel more than 90% of that money to civil legal aid providers across the United States, including Indiana Legal Services. These agencies use the funds to help low-income Americans with civil legal issues such as landlord-tenant disputes, custody and guardianships.

The boost in funding continues a trend that started in 2018. Congress has appropriated $85 million more to LSC in the past four annual spending bills even as the Trump Administration has called for the elimination of all funding to the organization in its budget proposals.

However, the increases in federal dollars have fallen short of LSC’s budget requests. For 2021, the organization had asked for $652 million.

The $465 million was part of the spending bill that included the new COVID-19 relief package. Although the coronavirus portion does not contain any money for LSC, the package will help stem demand for civil legal assistance by providing rental assistance, extending the moratorium on evictions through Jan. 31, 2021 and adding a $300 weekly supplement to unemployment benefits.

LSC President Ronald Flagg said his organization was grateful that Congress provided additional support for legal aid.

“Whether the issue relates to job losses, health care, evictions or domestic violence, access to a lawyer can make a life-impacting difference,” Flagg said in a statement. “We are hopeful that the new Congress will include additional funds for LSC in the next COVID-19 relief legislation as the pandemic has both increased the numbers of Americans falling into poverty and caused a surge in these legal needs.”

When the 117th Congress convenes Jan. 3, 2021, two friends of legal aid will be absent. Reps. Susan Brooks and Joe Kennedy III, co-founders of the Access to Civil Legal Services Caucus, will not be returning to Capitol Hill in the new year.

Brooks, R-Indiana, choose to leave Congress and did not run for reelection in 2020. Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, made an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate.

The pair launched the civil aid caucus in December 2015 to champion civil legal aid organizations and funding. At the announcement, Brooks said the new caucus wanted to make sure “when civil disputes are brought to our judicial system, those involved, regardless of financial means, have access to appropriate legal resources and representation.”

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