Free Legal Services a Powerful Tool for Preventing Homelessness

November 19, 2015

This is National Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week. I don’t suppose anyone who lives in a major metro area needs a special week to become aware of homeless people.

Here in the District of Columbia, we see them on the streets every day. And we know (or should) that we see only a relative few of the thousands who don’t have a home of their own.

The District has taken a leaf out of the strategic plan produced by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness — the goal of ending homelessness by 2020.

Or rather, it’s adopted and expanded the goal, since the nationwide plan merely “set[s] a path” for ending homelessness among adults who don’t have children in their care. The District instead aims to have homelessness be “rare, brief, and non-recurring” for all residents.

Though the goal is broader, the meaning of ending homelessness is the same. The plans recognize that some people will, at some point, have no place to live except a shelter. But optimally, they’ll be re-housed swiftly. And a relative few will need re-housing again.

Making homelessness rare and nonrecurring implies prevention. Significantly increasing the stock of housing that’s affordable for low-income residents — especially the very lowest-income — is a big part of that.

But the District has other preventive resources too. Its plan refers to emergency rental assistance, for example — one-time cash equivalent aid for certain types of people who’ve fallen behind on their rent or will if they can’t move to a cheaper place.

Beyond that, its plan focuses on several other groups at especially high risk of immediate homelessness. It envisions “prioritizing housing resources” to individuals whose mental health and/or substance abuse problems put them at greatest risk.

And it refers to plans that will help people who haven’t had to cope with housing before or for quite awhile, i.e., youth who are reaching the maximum age for foster care and people who’ll soon be released from jail, prison or the youth equivalent thereof.

Another form of assistance can prevent homelessness — free legal aid for individuals and families facing eviction or impermissible rent increases that could pave the way.

It also prevents them from having to leave their homes, with no place to go because landlords have so egregiously neglected repairs. And let’s not forget help in securing public benefits that can help pay rent.

The District has an impressive number of nonprofits that low-income residents at risk of homelessness for such reasons can turn to. And private law firms provide substantial pro bono services, both directly to individuals and as partners with nonprofits.

It’s still the case that many low-income residents stand before a judge alone and unprepared. Judges are not only aware of this, but deeply concerned.

Last year, the Chief Judge of the District Court of Appeals testified that he and his colleagues view “the growing number of litigants who are forced to seek justice without benefit of counsel” as “the principal barrier to ensuring equal access to justice.”

This is an old story. And it’s hardly unique to the District. The Legal Services Corporation, which awards grants to nonprofits that provide free legal aid, has lost federal funding — at least in real dollars — since 1981.

And restrictions Congress has imposed on what grantees can do has limited their effectiveness, prompting some nonprofits, including the D.C. Legal Aid Society to forgo the funds.

The recession has shrunk funding for nonprofit legal services too. States cut their share of funding to balance their budgets with shrunken tax revenues.

At the same time, Interest On Lawyer Trust Accounts — another source of funding for free legal services — plummeted as banks cut their interest rates in response to the Federal Reserve’s near-zero lending rate. Doubtful the recovery has spread to IOLTA, since the Fed hasn’t yet changed its policy.

We don’t, so far as I know, have current data on what LCS has termed “the justice gap.” A study it conducted about 10 years ago indicated that fewer than one in five low-income people with legal problems of a non-criminal sort had any assistance from a lawyer.

LCS-funded programs themselves turned away an estimated two-thirds of people who sought help with housing problems — the second most common type of help requested.

A District-specific report issued in 2009 warned of increasing recession-related needs for legal aid, including a rash of foreclosures. At the same time, legal services programs here had lost, on average, 25% of their funding, not counting a recent cut the District had made.

LCS funding is up in the air. The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved a $10 million increase — hardly enough to restore prior cuts. The full House has voted to slash the Corporation’s funding by $75 million.

The outcome will have an impact on the Neighborhood Legal Services Program — one of the District’s major sources of free legal assistance in housing cases. Local funding for District programs has inched up over the last five years. But it’s still only about $5 million — not all of it, for good and proper reasons, for services that can prevent homelessness.

One understands why strategic plans to end homelessness don’t mention free professional legal services — and thus why they’re not included in related budget proposals.

The collaborating agencies — and in the District’s case, community organizations that have a role in housing placements — don’t want to alienate landlords, since progress toward ending homelessness hinges in part on what they choose to do (and not).

Nor, one supposes, do the agencies cotton to the notion of acknowledging that the nonprofits and pro bono partners that challenge them are preventing — or foreshortening — homelessness.

But we who aren’t so constrained can do so — and advocate for them, as we should even if homelessness were ended.

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New Hope For Narrowing the Justice Gap

February 4, 2010

As I wrote awhile ago, civil legal services for low-income people are hobbled by two major impediments–inadequate funding and restrictions on what local legal services providers can do if they receive funds from the Legal Services Corporation.

The Corporation’s funding, in real dollars, has been declining since 1980, when its appropriation was sufficient to provide a “minimum level of access” to legal aid, i.e., two lawyers for every 10,000 low-income people in every county.

It was clear from the get-go that the Fiscal Year 2010 budget process wouldn’t do much about the funding problem. President Obama’s budget proposed $435 million for LCS–$45 million more than the Fiscal Year 2009 appropriation, but about $50 million less than LCS had requested.

The House of Representatives approved $440 million and the Senate $400 million. The negotiators ultimately split the difference. So LCS will have $420 million for the current fiscal year–about $345 million less than the Center for American Progress Action Fund estimated would be needed to restore minimum access.

But it did seem for awhile that this year’s budget process might significantly modify the restrictions. The President’s proposed budget included amendments to the Corporation’s authorizing legislation that would have allowed LCS grantees to seek attorneys’ fees in cases where they prevailed and to use non-LCS funds for activities that had been banned.

The House adopted the attorneys’ fees recommendation but left the remaining restrictions in place. The Senate lifted most of the restrictions on uses on non-LCS funds. On this matter, the House prevailed in the negotiations that led to the final bill.

But all is not lost. Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) have introduced identical bills–the Civil Access to Justice Act (H.R. 3764/S. 718)–that would eliminate all restrictions on uses of non-LCS funds, except (wouldn’t you know it) participation in litigation related to abortion.

Permissible uses of LCS funds would also be broadened to permit collection of attorneys’ fees and participation in class action suits “grounded in existing law.” The prohibition on representing prisoners would be modified to permit litigation on issues related to a prisoner’s “ability to reenter society successfully.” And some non-citizens now denied representation could be served.

H.R. 3764 and S. 718 are technically bills to reauthorize LCS–something that should have been done 30 years ago. In addition to addressing the restrictions, they would also raise the permissible ceiling on appropriations to $750 million. This, the sponsors say, would be the equivalent, in inflation-adjusted dollars, to the last appropriation that met the minimum access standard.

Of course, authorizing this much doesn’t mean that LCS will get it. But the figure establishes a reasonable target and a benchmark for the next five years.

The bills aren’t perfect. But they would bring civil legal services for low-income people into much closer alignment to what other Americans can receive. And they would enable LCS-funded nonprofits to engage in actions that would effectively and efficiently address the needs of large groups of clients.

So I think they deserve our support. And they’re going to need it because it’s obvious that our elected leaders can’t deal with more than a couple of controversial issues at a time. And if past is prologue, “equal access to the system of justice in our Nation” won’t be one of them.


Low-Income DC Residents Face More Legal Problems, Fewer Services

December 30, 2009

I wrote awhile ago about the gap between low-income people’s needs for legal services and the capacities of legal aid programs to provide them. Now a report by the DC Access to Justice Commission and the DC Consortium of Legal Services Providers brings it all home.

It’s one of the most depressing reports I’ve read in a long time. And that’s saying a lot.

Last year, the DC Access to Justice Commission reported in detail on the range and types of civil legal services needed by low-income people in the District. It concluded that, even with the D.C. government funding approved for Fiscal Years 2007-8, “the needs of those who cannot afford a lawyer substantially outweigh the available services.” And that was before the recession set in.

As the new report says, low-income residents now face more severe hardships–and more legal problems. Legal services attorneys estimate a 20% increase in requests for help. Increased needs are probably greater.

Meanwhile, local legal assistance organizations are grappling with drastic funding reductions. In 2009:

  • The D.C. Bar Foundation had to cut its grant-giving in half because revenues from its usual source of funds–the Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts program–plummeted due to the Federal Reserve Board’s cuts in interest rates.
  • Law firms and individual practitioners cut their contributions by as much as 20% due to declines in their business.
  • Firms also laid off associates and deferred hiring, thus reducing the availability of pro bono services.

Faces with less income, the organizations cut back on staff–both full-time attorneys and other staff whose work supports the quality and quantity of legal services provided. The network as a whole has lost the capacity to represent 1,050 clients and to provide less resource-intensive forms of help to an additional 2,100.

The organizations have adopted various strategies to cope with staff shortages. Many limit access or the types of services provided. By and large, cases involving complex issues, long-term representation and/or substantial resource commitments seem to have fallen victim to the need to provide some assistance to as many people as possible.

Resource constraints have also forced the organizations to limit efforts that can most effectively address the needs of large groups of clients–advocacy, systemic litigation and test cases. This is obviously a vicious circle, since resources committed to broad-based change would tend to limit the individual emergency needs that are now consuming all the resources.

Prospects for next year look even worse:

  • The District’s grant to the D.C. Bar Foundation, which channels funds to providers, has been cut by 20%.
  • Budgets for the DC Office for Victim Services and other agencies that provide grants for legal services have also been cut. Reported losses to providers exceed a total of $100,000.
  • Foundations that have struggled to sustain their funding for legal services will have to cut back due to significant declines in their assets.

Thus, the report says, the crisis in civil legal services representation will get worse before it gets better–unless there is substantial change.

How do we get there? First, I think, we need a much broader and deeper appreciation of why our community as a whole needs a robust legal services network.

The epigraph to the report, by Justice Learned Hand, puts it well: “If we are to keep our democracy, there must be one fundamental commandment: Thou shalt not ration justice.” That’s what we’re doing now–economizing at the expense of fairness, inclusiveness and shared prosperity.

Say what you will about tough economic times. I say it doesn’t have to be this way.


Lawyers For Low-Income People In Short Supply

November 28, 2009

Anyone who hasn’t led a charmed life knows how important it can be to have an attorney. They also know that private legal help doesn’t come cheap.

In 1974, Congress established the Legal Services Corporation to help provide free legal assistance in civil matters to those who otherwise couldn’t afford it. The Corporation receives federal funds through annual appropriations.

Most of these funds go to nonprofit local legal aid programs. Many of these programs also receive funds from state and local governments, private donors and/or their state’s Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts program. This program gives them the interest on clients’ funds deposited in a separate account when the costs of investing them otherwise would exceed the return.

But there’s a large and growing gap between low-income people’s needs for legal services and the capacity of the programs to provide them. According to a recent LCS report:

  • For every client served by an LCS-funded program, another is turned away because of insufficient resources.
  • Fewer than one in five legal problems low-income people experience is addressed with help from an attorney.
  • There’s only one legal aid attorney for every 6,415 people below 125% of the federal poverty line, as compared to one attorney for every 469 people above it.
  • State courts, especially those that deal with issues affecting low-income people, are handling more cases involving a litigant without an attorney. A high percentage of these litigants qualify for legal aid.

The problem here begins with the federal budget. Like many well-intentioned programs, LCS has never been adequately funded. But up until 1981, it received enough to meet a minimum access standard, i.e., two lawyers for every 10,000 low-income people, in every county in the U.S.

Then came deep cuts, prompted by the Reagan administration’s hostility to the program. Though the budget has since been increased, it’s never recovered to minimum access level. According to a Center for American Progress brief, it would need about $765 million to do so–about double the current appropriation.

A second budget-related blow came when the Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994. Programs receiving LCS funds were prohibited from engaging in class actions or advocating for legal reforms, even with funds from other sources. This left them no choice but to litigate similar cases one at a time, rather than seek systemic remedies. They were also prohibited from seeking attorneys’ fees that could otherwise be claimed.

The recession has exacerbated the funding problem in various ways.

  • IOLTA revenues have plummeted because the Federal Reserve Board has slashed interest rates to unfreeze credit markets and stimulate spending.
  • Some state and local governments have cut their support for legal aid programs to help close their budget gaps.
  • Rising unemployment and cutbacks in hours have made more people eligible for free legal services.
  • More eligible people need help with problems like foreclosures, debt, access to public benefits, domestic violence and child support.

For Fiscal Year 2010, LCS requested $485.1 million–about $295 million less than would be needed to serve all those currently seeking help from the local programs it supports.

The House appropriations bill would provide $440 million. It would lift the restriction on attorneys’ fees, but leave the rest of the restrictions intact.

The Senate version would provide $400 million–just $10 million more than in Fiscal Year 2009. But it would lift most restrictions on grantees’ uses of non-LCS funds. Prisoners and (surprise!) women needing help with abortion issues would still be out of luck.

The Washington Post recommends that House-Senate negotiators adopt the best of both–the House funding figure and the flexibility afforded by the Senate. This won’t close the justice gap. But it’s probably the best we can hope for until the vital, unmet legal needs of poor people become a higher priority.