Since his time on the campaign trail, Donald Trump has reiterated his far-reaching promises of major tax cuts and millions of new jobs. As president, Trump released a skinny budget proposal outlining a wide range of cuts to programs important to many Americans. One proposed cut would eliminate entirely the funding for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC). The LSC’s purpose is to provide “financial support for legal assistance in noncriminal proceedings or matters to persons financially unable to afford legal assistance.” In other words, the LSC provides free legal assistance to low-income Americans involved in civil cases, giving them access to the justice system that they might otherwise not have. A variety of respected firms, legal professionals, and organizations—including the American Bar Association—are outraged at President Trump’s hostility to civil legal aid.
Even if Congress’ forthcoming budget proposal ultimately maintains funding for the LSC, President Trump’s budget is likely to call for elimination of the LSC again—even though doing so would harm the very voters he promised to help. Wyoming, for example, would lose approximately half its legal aid funding if Congress adopts Trump’s proposed budget priorities. The president should instead encourage Congress to invest more money in the LSC to help many more working- and middle-class individuals.
The importance of the Legal Services Corporation
President Trump’s plans to eliminate the LSC would increase the justice gap, the difference between legal needs and the services available, and deprive low-income individuals, who are already underserved, of access to civil legal aid. This would close courthouse doors to individuals who cannot afford an attorney, who do not know their rights, and who do not even know where to go.
Legal aid ensures that Americans who would not otherwise have access to the courts, even in critical cases, are able to seek justice. Consider Nancy, who was directed to Legal Aid of West Virginia by a domestic violence shelter. Her abusive husband assaulted her after she attempted to escape from him. A legal aid attorney helped her obtain a lifetime protective order, file for divorce, and navigate income and support issues. Legal aid was able to provide her with services to help ease her fear and anxiety, allowing her to start a new life in safety.
The LSC distributes 93 percent of its federal appropriation as grants to legal aid organizations that in turn provide free civil legal services to low-income individuals, such as Nancy. Grantees also help individuals with cases involving unfair business practices, housing, and education.
Many individuals are already deterred from engaging in the legal system. In 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median American household brought in $55,775 annually. With the average attorney hourly fee for a partner being $604 per hour and $370 per hour for an associate, even a small issue that takes only a few hours to resolve can lead to a bill totaling more than $1,000. And this four-digit price point does not include additional fees, such as court filing fees, service process fees, credit card fees, and courthouse parking or transportation fees. Additionally, in order to file a lawsuit or seek an affordable attorney, many people may have to take time off work, which is not always an option.
The Legal Services Corporation is already underfunded
The LSC is currently underfunded, and with limited resources, attorneys, and staff, each office can only help so many individuals. There are also countless restrictions on LSC grantees, including prohibitions on class actions, abortion-related litigation, and the representation of prisoners. These burdens must be lifted in order to increase the number of individuals served and to bridge the gap between rich and poor individuals’ access to the justice system.
Even with the limitations on LSC-funded offices and the large number of prospective clients who are turned away, there is still a backlog. Even if individuals are qualified and meet the income requirements, they might have to wait months before being assigned an attorney. Only a small percentage of people who need help are actually served.
Congress should expand the Legal Services Corporation
Even middle-class individuals have trouble gaining access to justice. Rather than attacking the LSC, President Trump should urge Congress to increase its funding, lift restrictions on grantees, and expand eligibility to ensure more individuals have access to the justice system.
At a time when many Americans feel their rights are threatened, it is even more important to ensure that every door to the courts is open. Every individual, no matter their wealth or income, must be able to seek justice. This is, in fact, a constitutional issue. The preamble states that the U.S. Constitution’s purpose is to “establish justice” and “promote the general welfare.” If individuals cannot seek the justice integral to everyday needs, such as housing and health care, because they lack resources, the government is failing on both counts. But President Trump’s stance would exacerbate this failure of government and close the courthouse doors to even more Americans, including many who voted for him.
Catherine Ray was formerly an intern at the Center for American Progress.