Legal aid funding crisis: Is there still “justice for all”?

Line of peopleBy William Dowling

With reductions in grant funding and IOLTA interest rates still dropping, some legal aids around the state are cutting staff and, in some cases, closing offices for good—just as those in need of legal assistance reach record high numbers.

“Rose,” a pseudonym to protect client confidentiality, was a 30-year-old married woman with one child who worked at a day care center. Her husband was a drug addict who became violent when Rose refused to give him money from her paycheck to spend on drugs. He held her at knife point and threatened to kill her, once pulling her out of a car and dragging her by her hair. Rose feared for her life and worried about the effect the violence might be having on their child.

Rose applied to legal aid for help and her case was accepted. Her legal aid lawyer obtained a civil protection order and ended the marriage, allowing Rose and her child to start a new life, free from domestic violence.


For every “Rose” whose life is changed dramatically for the better through the help of legal aid, three people must be turned away because legal aid lacks the resources to help everyone who asks. Although the economy has improved slowly over the last several years, funding for legal aid has worsened to the point that it is now a crisis. All lawyers, and indeed all citizens who believe in the rule of law, must be concerned.


“Justice for all” is a core principle of our democracy, but the sad reality now is that for those without the money to pay a lawyer, justice is out of reach. Strong and well-funded legal aid helps to make sure that everyone gets their day in court. Justice for everyone, regardless of income, is good for the community and good for the economy.


All Ohio legal aids are nonprofit organizations that rely on donations and grants. Your support means that as legal aid works to achieve justice and end poverty, it helps civil court systems operate more smoothly and with fewer delays for every litigant. Supporting justice for all makes good sense for everyone.


Increased resources for legal aid means fewer families in shelters, more children safe at school and at home, and more veterans getting the benefits they have earned by their service.


Civil legal aid in Ohio is funded principally through three sources: the Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation (OLAF), which distributes revenue from interest on lawyer trust accounts (IOLTA), interest on trust accounts (IOTA) and a civil filing fee surcharge; the federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC), which distributes funds from a congressional appropriation; and private donations and grants. On average, OLAF grants comprise about 37 percent of funding; LSC represents 25 percent; and other sources make up the remaining 38 percent of a legal aid’s funding.


Rates of interest paid on IOLTA and IOTA accounts have remained at historic lows during the last several years. As a result, trust account interest revenues have declined by almost 90 percent since 2007. Despite signs of general economic recovery, some large banks have recently dropped interest rates on trust accounts even further. By themselves, the low interest rates have resulted in fewer children maintained in school, fewer women obtaining civil protection orders and fewer seniors receiving end-of-life planning assistance.


In addition, civil filing fee surcharge revenues have declined, due in part to an 18 percent drop in foreclosure filings from their peak in 2008. The combined impact of low trust account interest rates and reduced revenues from civil filing fees is an overall 54 percent decrease in OLAF funding for civil legal aid from 2007 to 2012.


As is true for most or all federally funded agencies, the LSC currently operates with funding set by an omnibus spending bill passed by Congress in January. The appropriation for LSC that had been set by the budget continuing resolution in effect before passage of the spending bill had also been reduced by sequestration funding cuts.


Federal funding for legal aid hit its all-time high in 2010, at $420 million. Funding set by the continuing budget resolution for fiscal year 2013, including sequestration cuts, was $340.8 million, a loss of nearly 20 percent of funding in just a few years. Moreover, the funding set by the continuing resolution was just $40 million more than legal aid funding in 1980. Adjusted for inflation, the 1980 appropriation would be $838 million.1 When inflation is taken into account, federal funding for civil legal aid is now at an all-time low.


As a result of the dramatic drops in grants from both OLAF and LSC, Ohio’s legal aids have been forced to close offices and lay off staff, including lawyers, paralegals and administrative staff. From 2008 until 2012, Ohio’s legal aids lost 101 attorneys, almost 30 percent of the legal aid attorney work force, through layoff or attrition.


At the same time, economic conditions contributed to a historic rise in the number of people whose household incomes make them eligible for representation by legal aid.2 Nationally, the percentage of the population eligible for representation by legal aid increased from 17 percent in 2007 to 19.7 percent in 2012.3 In Ohio, 20.9 percent of the population, or 2.3 million people, were income eligible for legal aid representation in 2012, compared with 1.6 million, or 14.7 percent of the population, in 2000. Ohio was one of only four states where the population of very low income, that is, households at 50 percent of poverty or less, increased by three percent or more between 2000 and 2012.4


Last November, the Ohio State Bar Association Council of Delegates unanimously approved a resolution affirming that equal access to justice cannot be achieved without adequate funding for Ohio’s legal aids and urging all federal, state and local legislative bodies to adopt laws and policies ensuring full and adequate funding. The resolution is consistent with OSBA Board of Governors and Council of Delegates action dating back at least as far as the early 1990s.


In Akron, where I live and work, many of my colleagues, including members of the judiciary, view pro bono work as an obligation of every attorney engaged in the practice of law. Local lawyers and law firms have also participated in a capital campaign for Akron’s legal aid, Community Legal Aid Services.


The essential work of legal aids is not limited to direct representation of people who cannot afford a lawyer. Community Legal Aid, like every other legal aid in the state, offers pro bono clinics, training for pro bono volunteers, and recognition events to thank volunteers for their extraordinary work on behalf of most vulnerable Ohioans. This important work supports and extends the reach of legal aid, but pro bono work alone cannot solve the civil legal aid crisis.


Legal aid clients who get legal help from pro bono lawyers could not be helped by those lawyers without the structure and support that legal aid provides. Legal aid trains pro bono lawyers, provides malpractice insurance coverage that protects the clients, saves pro bono lawyers time by assembling important documents before the case is referred to the attorney, and provides valuable oversight to ensure that cases do not slip through any cracks, either at court or in the lawyer’s office.

It is critical that lawyers recognize and support efforts to increase and secure stable funding for civil legal aid. Confidence in government and the rule of law will diminish if litigants cannot access the judicial system to resolve disputes. Backlogs caused by too many unrepresented litigants result in delays of all cases. Ohioans who cannot afford a lawyer cannot resolve disputes effectively without the assistance of a lawyer.


As each of us knows from our everyday work experiences, lawyers are problem solvers. Representation by a lawyer most often means a better resolution for those involved in disputes. For people who cannot afford a lawyer, having access to legal aid means a leveled playing field, a chance for securing stability and dignity, and the hope for an end to poverty. Robust legal aids mean better communities for all of us.


As expressed by the unanimous action of the OSBA Council of Delegates, it is time for all Ohio lawyers to support legal aid through pro bono service, financial support and advocacy at all levels of government for adequate funding.

Author bio

William Dowling is a mediator and arbitrator with Dowling Mediation, and is of counsel with Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs in Akron. He is chair of the Access to Justice Committee and a board member for the Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation. He is active in promoting pro bono service and charitable giving to legal aid.

Endnotes

1 Management’s Recommendation for LSC’s FY 2015 Budget Request, pg. 3 and Appendix 3, available at www.lsc.gov/sites/lsc.gov/files/LSC/pdfs/Management_sRevisedFY2015BudgetRequestRecommendation%287-19-2013%29.pdf.
2 In general, to be eligible for representation by legal aid, household income must be at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty guideline; in 2013 a one-person household would qualify at annual income of $14,363 and a family of four would qualify at annual household income not exceeding $29,438. In 2012, more than 50 percent of the clients served by the Legal Aid of Greater Cincinnati had income of $10,000 or less; Legal Aid of Greater Cincinnati/Legal Aid of Southwestern Ohio 2012 Annual Report, www.lascinti.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/LAS_AR_2012_Final.pdf.
3 U.S. Census Bureau, Historical Poverty Tables-People, Table 6 (People Below 125 Percent of Poverty Level and the Near Poor), www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/data/historical/people.html.
4 U.S. Census Bureau, “Poverty: 2000 to 2012,” Table 3 (“Number and Percentage of People with Income-to-Poverty Ratio by State: 2000 and 2012), issued September 2013, www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/acsbr12-01.pdf.

This article orginally appeared in the March/April 2014 issue of Ohio Lawyer, the Ohio State Bar Association member magazine. Join the OSBA today, and get every issue of Ohio Lawyer for free.
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