Plan to Defund Legal Aid: Justice as a Market Good

Administration budget outline: $0 for Legal Services Corporation (Legal Aid)

The famous Shakespeare line from Henry VI, “First things we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” is often misread as an attack on lawyers, rather than an idea suggested by a thug in a band plotting to topple the government and install one of their number as king.

In 2017, the new head of government in America proposed to kill all the funding for Legal Services Corporation, which funds “legal aid” all across America — the lawyers serving the poor with their civil legal needs.

There is probably no better indicator of the administration’s view of justice than this, as it would complete the debasement of “Justice for All” from our highest ideal into a market good, only available to those with the means to buy it and denied entirely to those without money.

There’s a saying used to help people understand the way economists use the words “need” and “demand,” pointing out that a parched and penniless person in the desert has a great need for water, but exerts no demand for it. Legal aid funding lets the people parched for justice in America exert some small demand for it — which is why it has been the target of reactionary ideologues since Reagan onward.

Law School Deans Oppose Defunding

“Without access to quality representation there is no justice.”

March 23, 2017

Dear Congressional Leaders:

As deans of law schools in the United States, we urge you to maintain funding for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the largest funder of civil legal aid in our nation. The LSC has long received bipartisan support, and we hope that you will continue to work together to ensure that the LSC has the funding it needs to perform its critical function.

We lead a diverse array of law schools – large and small, public and private, in college towns and big cities, in red states and blue states – that have a wide variety of institutional missions. Our personal views span the political spectrum. What brings us together today is a shared conviction that the loss of LSC funds would devastate efforts to provide access to essential legal services in our communities.

LSC-funded providers serve millions of low-income Americans who could not otherwise afford legal representation. These providers help people who live in households with annual incomes at or below 125% of the federal poverty guidelines, a category that includes almost one in five Americans. The cases involve some of the most difficult, life-changing circumstances a person can face. The most common LSC-funded matters include advocating for the needs of military families, protecting domestic violence victims, representing parties in guardianship proceedings, preventing foreclosures, and guarding the elderly against unscrupulous lenders.

LSC funding, even at current levels, leaves many people without any legal assistance. Though LSC funds helped nearly 1.9 million people in 2015, recent studies estimate that 80 percent of the civil legal needs of the eligible population are still not being met. From 2007 to 2016, funding per eligible person decreased from $7.54 to $5.85.

Research shows that civil legal aid is a wise public investment and actually saves taxpayer dollars. For example, by helping end cycles of domestic violence, making it possible for children to leave foster care more quickly, and reducing unnecessary evictions and unjust foreclosures, LSC funds reduce the need for public spending in other areas.

As law school deans, we see the impact of LSC funds, not just in direct service by legal aid organizations, but through the partnerships that the funds facilitate. Many of our schools operate clinics and externships that collaborate with organizations that rely on LSC funds. The funds have a positive ripple effect across our communities and into future generations of attorneys, as our students work alongside experienced attorneys dedicated to serving the less fortunate.

LSC has been a success story because it reflects a bipartisan affirmation of who we are as Americans. As the late Justice Antonin Scalia stated in his remarks celebrating the organization’s 40th anniversary, the LSC “pursues the most fundamental of American ideals,” for “without access to quality representation there is no justice.”

We appreciate your consideration of our request.

And Top Corporate Counsel Oppose Defunding Legal Aid

National Legal Aid & Defender Association Corporate Advisory Committee

About nine score of the top lawyers for many of America’s largest corporations — the ones who have the most to lose if the steady trend towards towards making America resemble Bourbon France of the Pre- Revolutionary period — signed the letter below urging Congress to maintain Legal Service Corporation — on its starvation rations, but at least on some rations.

The corporations represented by these attorneys include some of the most prominent financial and consumer products companies in the country — companies that are not at all shy about pursuing low-income consumers for debts through the legal system. That even these mega-corporations recognize that their interests are better served when the poor have at least a semblance of access to representation in the justice system speaks volumes. The signers companies include:

March 28, 2017

To: All Members of Congress

The undersigned 185 leaders of corporate legal departments across the country write to urge you to support the preservation of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) and provide funding at a level of $450 million for FY 2018, which would be consistent with the appropriation received in FY2010, adjusted for inflation. As the cornerstone of equal justice in America, LSC creates a level playing field for the many lower and moderate- income families who cannot afford a lawyer. By upholding the fundamental American promise of liberty and justice for all, the minimal investment in LSC generates a significant positive return for business and for the health of individuals and communities across the nation.

As lawyers and business leaders, we understand how LSC’s national framework provides the basic structure that supports the provision of civil legal services. It also supports the countless hours of pro bono representation provided by corporate legal departments and in-house attorneys. Without the structure and dedicated resources of LSC, many of these volunteer hours would not be possible. Pro bono assistance is an essential part of the representation that is available to people who would otherwise go unrepresented and is increasingly recognized as good for business.

Civil legal issues can have devastating, life altering consequences for people who are forced to face the justice system alone. Legal aid programs provide access to vital resources that anyone can use to navigate the civil justice system. LSC grantees serve almost two million Americans facing critical legal needs every year. These programs serve, among others:

active duty military personnel, as well as veterans returning from wars;

domestic violence victims;

elderly individuals;

families who are in danger of losing their homes;

victims of natural disasters;

families involved in child custody disputes; and

small business owners.

Federal support for legal aid forms the foundation of our nation’s civil justice infrastructure. LSC funds grantees covering every county in America, and its grantees are often the only legal aid program for many in our country’s most rural areas. Without this targeted approach, effective access to our civil justice system would likely be mainly available only in urban and suburban parts of the United States.

While we understand that within this fiscal environment difficult decisions about spending must be made, we believe that access to justice is not an expendable luxury but an indispensable manifestation of our country’s most fundamental values. Just as investing in America’s roads and bridges are vital to our transportation infrastructure, LSC is a vital part of the infrastructure that undergirds our justice system, ensuring that fair treatment is not dependent on a person’s ability to pay for it.

Just some of the companies represented by the signers: Hewlett Packard Enterprise; Biogen Inc.; Salesforce.org; FedEx Ground Package System, Inc.; Comcast Corporation; The Walt Disney Company; Adventist Health System; Entergy Corporation; Joslin Diabetes Center; LinkedIn [now owned by Microsoft]; Cisco; Comcast Cable; Fidelity Investments; Yahoo! Inc.; U.S. Bancorp; Discover Financial Services; Konica Minolta; Autodesk, Inc.; Adobe Inc.; General Electric; Adidias; Capital One; 3M; Viacom Inc.; JP Morgan Chase & Co.; Twitter; General Motors Company; Newmont Mining Corporation; NBCUniversal Media LLC; Prudential Financial, Inc.; United Continental Holdings, Inc.; Taco John’s International, Inc.; Starbucks; Merck & Co., Inc.; Hyatt Hotels Corporation; Levi Strauss & Co.; Raytheon Company;  Liberty Mutual Insurance Company; Libbey Inc.; Nike Inc.; Isuzu North America Corporation; Applied Materials, Inc.; Allstate Insurance Company; Clif Bar & Company; Northwestern Mutual; BNY Mellon; Xerox Corporation; CBRE; Mayo Clinic; Umpqua Bank; eBAY Inc.; Exelon Corporation; AstraZeneca; Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina; Boston Scientific Corporation; RE/MAX Gold; The Home Depot; Aetna; Electronic Arts; American Express Company; J.R. Grace & Co.; Verizon; Microsoft; Thomson Reuters Corporation; The Clorox Company; ABA Insurance Services; NEC Corporation of America; Facebook; Symantec; CBS Corporation; Visa Inc.; Edison International; Eastman Kodak Company; FirstEnergy Corp; PayPal Holdings, Inc.; Google Inc.; Molson Coors Brewing Company; Salesforce.com, Inc.; Citigroup Inc.; Comcast Spectacor; PepsiCo; The Kroger Co.; Amazon.