Statement on the Proposed Elimination of the Legal Services Corporation – by John S. Kiernan

Since the 1960s, every Presidential administration has included in its budget support for federal legal services funding, provided to the states initially through the Office of Economic Opportunity and, since 1974, through its successor the Legal Services Corporation. LSC currently distributes $375 million a year to local and regional programs in all fifty states – an average of just  $7.5 million per state, although Legal Services NYC received $11.7 million this year – to support the delivery of legal services to people who cannot afford a lawyer. Those limited funds pay for lawyers and support staff to protect tenants from eviction, spouses from abusers, recipients of government benefits from losing funds on which they depend for subsistence, consumers from predators, the elderly from victimizers, veterans from loss of needed support, and other people below the federal poverty line from denials of similar essentials of life. While some Congresses have been less generous than others in the funding of Legal Services – most notably the 1981 Congress (which cut spending significantly) and the 1996 Congress (which cut spending by about 30% and imposed restrictions that prohibited recipients of funding from defending immigrants or bringing class actions that could yield attorneys fees to them if they prevailed) – these cuts have been temporary, and no Congress or President has ever defunded the Legal Services Corporation in its entirety, or anything even close. Particularly over the last 20 years, the recognition of LSC’s value has generally transcended party politics, and has been enduring. 

The Administration’s recently circulated proposed budget would draw a thick black line through 50 years of history and eliminate the Legal Services Corporation altogether. It’s possible, of course, that this proposal is just a first statement in what everyone expects to be an extended conversation, where the request for a $52 billion increase in defense spending and cuts in taxes  stimulated a sense of need to present a collection of proposed spending cuts calculated to permit horse trading. Other proposed program cuts contained in this budget outline have a similarly provocative quality. But statements during campaign season and by Presidential advisors present reasons for concern that this proposal is not just a negotiating feint, instead representing principled opposition to the use of federal funds to support legal services needs. And while Congressional support for legal services funding has crossed party lines and is backed by a half-century of history (and of elected officials’ recognition of the life-altering benefits legal representations have provided for large numbers of their poorest constituents), it remains uncertain whether the pressures of Presidential urging or party discipline will steer members of Congress away from the better instincts they have exercised through many political seasons of unvaryingly votes to keep LSC funded. As a result, it seems plainly necessary to treat the proposal as the most serious threat to federal legal services funding in memory. 

The City Bar has been a strong supporter of the Legal Services Corporation, and of substantial federal legal services funding, for as long as this funding has existed. Federal legal services funding played a pivotal role in establishing and providing the first legal protections for our poorest citizens. As New York State and New York City have significantly increased their funding for legal services in recent years – the State, most noticeably, in allocations from its Judiciary Budget that now amount to $100 million annually, and the City, most recently, in its dramatically increased appropriations aimed at providing counsel for all poor tenants threatened with evictions – the federal money remains highly important, and in some states and cities it remains essential, to the delivery of needed legal services. Governments’ progressive increases in total legal services funding over time have stemmed not only from instincts of compassion and increased conviction that people should not face denials of life essentials by the legal system without legal protection, but also from growing recognition that the economic and human costs associated with these losses of protection can greatly exceed the cost of providing a lawyer, and that in many contexts the huge difference between the results experienced by represented and unrepresented individuals sends a strong message that the outcome for poor parties is dominated not by justice but by whether they have access to someone who knows their rights and can present their positions effectively. Legal services not only prevent consequences like homelessness or hunger that are far more expensive to remedy than to prevent, but also enhance the capacity of judges and court systems to do their jobs. 

In recent weeks, the chairs or presiding partners of more than 150 law firms have signed a statement urging Congress to preserve funding for the LSC, and a similar effort is underway among the general counsel of numerous major corporations, whose joint letter proposes an increase in LSC funding to $450 million. The degree of agreement among members of the legal profession regarding the LSC’s importance is high. The returns to the American way of life from providing this basic protection are substantial.  

The City Bar, through its Pro Bono and Legal Services Committee (chaired by Alison King) and other committees, will be working to oppose elimination of the Legal Services Corporation and support increases in its funding. We will be coordinating with other bar associations to communicate with relevant Representatives in their home districts and in Washington, D.C. on ABA lobby day, will be writing on the subject and will be helping to coordinate large group communications with Congress and the President. We encourage our members to enlist the support of their employers and to press other bar associations or legal groups to which they belong to communicate their convictions on this important subject to our political leaders. This appears to be an important time for supporters of the Legal Services Corporation to rally in support of its preservation. 

John S. Kiernan is President of the New York City Bar Association