Civil Legal Aid: Ensuring Equal Access to Justice
by John Levi, LSC Board Chair
This article was originally published as guest commentary in the Daily Business Review.
Florida Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and other leading jurists gathered Friday at the University of Miami School of Law for a panel discussion on civil legal aid sponsored by the Legal Services Corp., the largest single funder of civil legal aid in the country.
A week earlier, Labarga convened the inaugural meeting of the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice, where the challenges facing civil legal aid in Florida were given a much-needed public hearing.
Significant attention regarding civil legal aid has focused on state and local issues, but the federal component in supporting our nation's system of civil legal aid is also important and faces its own daunting challenges.
LSC provided nearly $20 million to seven legal aid providers in Florida in 2013, supplying on average more than 47 percent of their budgets. In South Florida, however, LSC provided approximately 60 percent of funding at Legal Services of Greater Miami and Coast to Coast Legal Aid of South Florida.
Unfortunately, LSC funding nationwide has not kept pace with the substantial need and is now clearly inadequate.
In 1976, its first year of full congressional funding, the fledgling LSC was allocated by Congress, in inflation-adjusted terms, more than $468 million, rising three years later to its all-time high of what today would be more than $880 million.
I wish I could say we were anywhere near that level of funding today, but the FY 2015 allocation of $375 million is less than half of that, and only $10 million more than the previous year.
As LSC funding has remained low, the population eligible for LSC-funded assistance has grown to all-time highs. Nearly one in three Americans—96 million people—qualified for LSC-funded services at some time during 2013, the most recent year for which U.S. Census Bureau data are available.
• 63.6 million people—one in five Americans—had annual incomes below the threshold for LSC-funded legal assistance of 125 percent of the federal poverty line: $14,363 for an individual and $29,438 for a family of four.
• Another 32.4 million people had incomes below the 125 percent level for at least two consecutive months during the year.
Here in Florida, the eligible population has expanded by nearly a third since 2007, but LSC funding has remained virtually unchanged. Dollars spent per eligible person have declined by 30 percent since then, and there are now more than 7,000 eligible clients in Florida for every legal aid lawyer.
LSC has been calling attention to the crisis in civil legal aid at forums such as the one we sponsored on Friday here in Miami, and LSC has been helping stretch tight resources by promoting the development and use of innovative technology and through programs to expand pro bono service by the private bar. But adequate funding remains crucial.
When LSC was founded in 1974, Congress established its mission "to provide equal access to the system of justice in our nation" and "to provide high quality legal assistance to those who would be otherwise unable to afford adequate legal counsel."
This mission has been a core value of our nation and a key component of American self-understanding and the rule of law. In my view, the continued low funding of LSC is nothing short of a national disgrace.
As Hillary Clinton, LSC's second board chair, emphasized at a conference in Washington in September marking the 40th anniversary of LSC:
"Guaranteeing legal services for all Americans makes us a better country and a fairer country. It helps by empowering people to solve those problems and it helps to level the playing field. It is not just a fair shot at the justice system, but it is a fair shot at the American dream."
From the earliest days of our republic the crucial importance of justice has been recognized, as Merck's remarkable CEO Ken Frazier stirringly observed at our conference:
"Alexander Hamilton said the first duty of society is justice. And when we begin to lose the values that have quintessentially defined us as Americans, and if we have to resort simply to economic arguments as to why our fellow citizens deserve justice, I think we're going to have given up something very important."
Ensuring equal access to justice is indeed quintessentially American and, as Justice Antonin Scalia said in Washington, there cannot be true justice without equal access.
"The American ideal is not for some justice, it is as the Pledge of Allegiance says, 'Liberty and justice for all,' or as the Supreme Court pediment has it, 'equal justice.' I've always thought that's somewhat redundant. Can there be justice if it is not equal? Can there be a just society when some do not have justice? Equality, equal treatment is perhaps the most fundamental element of justice."
We must ensure that all sources of funding for civil legal aid—local, state and federal—are sufficient to preserve and honor this fundamental ideal.
John G. Levi is chairman of Legal Services Corp. in Washington, D.C.