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With the legal needs of the poor rising in volume and intensity, more access to legal aid is a needed stop on the road to economic recovery.

  • Emily Savner
June 28, 2010

Cross posted from The National Law Journal

With the legal needs of the poor rising in volume and intensity, more access to legal aid is a needed stop on the road to economic recovery.

One in every 138 U.S. households fell into foreclosure in the first quarter of 2010, 15 million Americans were unemployed in May and the unemployment rate is hanging at nearly 10%.

Although the recession may be in its waning days, thousands of vulnerable families continue to face a harsh economic reality and, increasingly, need legal help. The legal needs of the poor and working poor are rising in both volume and intensity. Those unable to afford a private attorney increasingly need counsel to stave off foreclosure and eviction and fight unscrupulous lenders; obtain unemployment insurance benefits, food stamps and other income supplements that help their families stay afloat; and protect themselves and their children from abusive spouses as the incidence of domestic violence rises during harsh financial times.

And now, more poor families are being created. With ongoing unemployment, an increasing number of families is falling into poverty and becoming eligible for federally funded legal aid. Almost 54 million Americans qualified in 2008 — about 3 million more than in 2007. And given the dramatic increase in unemployment from 2008, the number of eligible clients is expected to rise further.

In state after state, people are encountering severe shortcomings in the delivery of legal services, exactly when they need those services most. More and more people are seeking the help of their local legal aid offices, programs are reporting that requests for assistance are skyrocketing, telephone intake lines are jammed with calls and wait times in their offices are growing from minutes to hours.

The Legal Aid Society in New York City, for example, reported a 16% increase in clients seeking domestic violence-related help, a 40% increase in health cases, a 30% increase in employment-related cases and a 20% increase in housing cases from the recession’s start to July 2009. Legal services programs in Maryland reported a 60% jump in requests for assistance from 2008 to 2010. And in Florida, one program alone, Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida, has seen a 700% increase in the number of people seeking advice [in bankruptcy matters] in the 12 counties it serves.

There is no doubt that legal aid programs were already at capacity before this recession’s fallout: In 2005, legal services programs receiving federal funding reported being able to serve fewer than half of the eligible clients seeking their help. Today, with more people seeking legal assistance and the recession having dealt a huge funding blow to legal aid programs, an even smaller portion of those in need is receiving help.

After the Legal Services Corp. — which distributes federal funds to local legal aid programs — the second-largest source of legal aid revenue has been from state-based Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (IOLTA) programs, which pool interest earned on the funds that private attorneys temporarily hold for their clients. But recent interest-rate drops have left IOLTA programs with dwindling sums to disburse. Nationally, IOLTA revenue dropped from $371 million in 2007 to an estimated $92 million in 2009, a 75% decrease.

In some states, vast IOLTA shortfalls, along with state budget cuts, are forcing legal aid programs to close offices, lay off staff and assist fewer clients. In Wisconsin, IOLTA revenue dropped 92% in 2009, from $897,000 to $67,000, resulting in an expected 30% reduction in staff across multiple legal aid programs. The statewide organization coordinating legal services in New Jersey expected only $3 million in IOLTA funds for fiscal year 2010, compared to $12.4 million in fiscal 2009 and $40 million in fiscal 2008; every million dollars lost means 10 staff positions cut and 1,100 fewer clients served. And in Massachusetts, a $1.5 million drop in state support and a $10 million drop in IOLTA revenue lowered local legal aid budgets by 54% in 2009, a cut that was expected to lead to an 18% decline in client services and leave approximately 20,000 individuals without the legal help they need.

In addition to these funding woes, the ability of low-income people to access legal aid is hindered by 15-year-old congressional restrictions that prevent attorneys at federally funded civil legal services programs from employing all the crucial advocacy tools available to every other attorney. Because of these restrictions, clients of federally supported legal aid programs cannot get the comprehensive relief that, at times, only a class action can provide, nor can cash-poor legal aid programs capitalize on the efficiency benefits of a class action, forcing programs to litigate individual cases one by one — bad for clients and programs. Too often, the voices of poor families are silenced by restrictions that severely limit the extent to which their lawyers can advocate on their behalf before lawmakers in order to correct bad policies. And fewer eligible people are able to receive help because legal aid programs are forced to waste money on duplicative structures if they wish to “unrestrict” their nonfederal money.

Though legal aid is not a cure-all, it can save families from the hardest edges of the downturn and it can help communities recover faster. Lawmakers should take steps to increase access to civil legal services while the poor continue to be battered by the recession: increase federal funding for legal services, lift federal restrictions hindering representation and pass legislation currently pending in Congress — introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) — to improve and revitalize the federal commitment to legal aid, the Civil Access to Justice Act. Wider repercussions are felt by us all when the legal needs of significant segments of the population go unmet: The public can lose faith in the judicial system, and our promise of “equal justice for all” can itself fall victim to the recession.

For more on the rising need and falling funding for civil legal services, visit the Brennan Center’s Web site at