President Donald Trump's discretionary budget proposal for fiscal year 2018, released last week, would cut funding entirely from 19 organizations, including the Legal Services Corporation, a federal nonprofit founded in 1974 that provides grants for civil legal aid to low-income Americans.
Neil Kelly, president of the Houston Bar Association's board, says these cuts would "materially affect the quality of life" for many low-income Texans.
According to the LSC’s budget outline for the this year, more than 90 percent of the money it receives from the government goes to nonprofits around the country who fund state organizations that provide civil legal aid to people otherwise unable to afford a lawyer. Civil court encompasses a lot, including domestic violence cases, custody disputes and housing cases like evictions and foreclosures. If someone wanted to fight an eviction to stay in his home or obtain guardianship for his child or fight a subpoena, he'd need to take his case to civil court, and once there, would need representation.
Houston Volunteer Lawyers, the pro-bono branch of the Houston Bar Association, is a recipient of LSC grant money. The group reviews Texans' needs and income level and, if they qualify, puts their cases into a database where a volunteer lawyer can take them for free. Houston Volunteer Lawyers only takes on civil cases that do not generate fees, so personal injury cases and the like are out.
Houston Volunteer Lawyers currently receives $190,000 per year from the federal government, with a total yearly operating budget of $2.5 million in other grants. According to Executive Director Alissa Gomez, that money is used to sponsor free intake clinics in the group's service area of greater Harris County. People can talk with a legal professional, see if they qualify for assistance and get their case lawyer. Lone Star Legal, another Texas legal aid nonprofit, handles 72 rural counties in east Texas that are outside of the Houston area.
Civil cases also cover issues like income, disability, and medical benefits. Gomez, who spent years handling pro bono cases at King and Spalding law firm before joining Houston Volunteer Lawyers, explains that unlike in criminal court, defendants in civil cases are not guaranteed an attorney, which could have dire consequences for the defendant.
“What if you’re facing losing a child?” Gomez tells the Houston Press. “What if you’re being evicted from your home?”
One case Gomez presented was someone wrongfully punished for debt run up on a credit card fraudulently taken out in his name. Even though the defendant did not make the purchases, the wrecked score affects his ability to rent an apartment, let alone buy a home down the road.
If poor people cannot afford an attorney, they cannot bring cases to court and are left with the ill-advised option of representing themselves should they be sued. As it is, about 80 percent of people in civil cases represent themselves.
Neil Kelly, the Houston Bar Association board president, related a case of his in which a parent needed to obtain legal guardianship of their disabled child in order to authorize their medical care once they were over the age of 18.
“We have rights that need to be protected…that can only be done by a court,” Kelly said.
Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse is another Houston nonprofit that gets help from the feds. Its mission is to provide resources and legal aid to domestic violence victims. That includes representation at custody hearings, help filing restraining orders, and financial assistance for things like emergency shelter and transportation.
Without grant funding, the already strained resources of groups like these would be stretched further still.
Even now, Gomez says that there is one lawyer for every 11,000 legal assistance-qualified Texans, to say nothing of the rest of the country. According to the Legal Services Corporation's 2017 funding request of $503 million, its grantees “still have not recovered from the significant cut in funding from 2010 to 2014”, and aid to Texas specifically was down 1.7 percent in 2016. Its most recent data also states that Texas legal aid organizations relied on the federal government for more than half of their funds.
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Even with this funding, the National Center for Access to Justice's annual “access to justice” index puts Texas in the bottom half of U.S. states, ranking particularly low on the attorney access index. It isn’t a stretch to think that things would get worse if federal funding were cut.
Kelly, an attorney with the Andrews Kurth law firm, said a lack of federal funding would have a negative “ripple effect” for litigants and state resources. Poor Texans would be underrepresented and could place an additional burden on police and hospitals, since people would be unable to resolve their disputes in court.
Gomez agreed, describing legal aid services as a “safety net that, without it, these folks can’t get what they need.”
The FY 2017 budget for the Legal Services Corporation won't be known until closer to October, but until then, legal aid groups are left to worry how they will continue to serve low-income Texans.