Year-End Message from LSC Board Chairman John G. Levi
At the end of last year, on behalf of the LSC Board, I applauded your really remarkable efforts to continue your vital work during the unprecedented circumstances created by COVID-19.
We had no idea that we would still be talking about the pandemic a year later, let alone the new challenges posed by the omicron variant.
Low-income families continue to face job losses, evictions, domestic violence and other problems stemming from the continuing pandemic. You and your staffs have mounted heroic efforts to handle both the resulting spike in legal needs and the adjustments required for remote work.
The Board thanks you and the more than 11,000 attorneys, paralegals and staff members at LSC-funded legal aid offices across the country.
Although LSC and its grantees have shown no shortage of imagination, grit and determination in continuing our essential services during the pandemic, our efforts have been hampered by an all-too-familiar scarcity—adequate funding.
I don’t need to describe to you the magnitude of the chronic underfunding of civil legal aid in this country and the justice gap it has created. It is your lived reality, and even before the pandemic, many of you were turning away more than 40% of people seeking assistance because of a lack of resources.
And throughout the year, we heard compelling reports from you about how the pandemic made your already dire circumstances even more grim during the last two years, including this particularly gripping account from Raun Rasmussen, executive director of Legal Services NYC:
“So, what happened on the ground? The city lost more than 600,000 jobs…our clients lost their jobs, their access to public benefits, to classrooms, to childcare, to food, to all the things they normally need to survive. The need for public assistance skyrocketed in New York City due to the pandemic, we were flooded with requests for help, more than double what we normally get, from families who were suddenly in dire emergencies—without food...medicine…diapers and other absolute essentials.”
We also heard how a resurgent opioid crisis and natural disasters—wildfires in the West, floods and tornadoes in the Midwest, and especially Hurricane Ida on the Gulf Coast—only deepened the surge in demand for your legal services. In September, Congress appropriated $40 million to LSC in supplemental funding to help grantees and their clients recover in areas impacted by these natural disasters.
In terms of overall funding, Congress increased LSC’s appropriation by $25 million to $465 million in the FY 2021, but we all know that funding is nowhere near what is necessary to meet this unmet need.
As you’ve heard me say over the years, it is only half of what in today’s dollars would have been the $880 million appropriated just two years after LSC’s founding in the 1970s when only 12% of a smaller U.S. population qualified for civil legal assistance, as opposed to the average of nearly 20% in the decade before the pandemic.
In FY 1994, Congress appropriated $400 million for LSC and its grantees. Nearly three decades later, LSC’s current funding of $465 million is only slightly higher, not remotely enough to keep up with inflation or our population growth, much less the increases in legal needs caused by the recessions, the pandemic and other factors.
That is why the LSC Board unanimously voted earlier this year to request $1.26 billion from Congress for Fiscal Year 2023.
Meanwhile, LSC continued an ambitious agenda of research and outreach projects and events.
In May LSC’s Veterans Task Force released its report after working for more than a year in collaboration with its pro bono partner, DLA Piper, to identify ways to strengthen the relationship between legal aid providers and to better address the civil legal needs of low-income vets.
LSC convened a housing task force several months later supported by the Wachtell Lipton firm to complement an ongoing LSC study examining how varying state and local laws affect eviction outcomes.
Begun at the behest of Congress, the eviction study issued several research briefs throughout the year and will complete its work in early 2022.
And just two weeks ago, LSC launched a new task force focused on the challenges of delivering legal aid to low-income populations in rural communities. Ascendium Education Group and the Quarles & Brady law firm are supporting this initiative. The task force will continue its work through the coming year.
Additionally, LSC convened its annual Veterans Day Forum as well as events on housing insecurity and domestic violence, access to justice initiatives in various states, and three forums on the impact of the pandemic on civil legal aid and the justice system, one of them co-sponsored by the Congressional Access to Legal Aid Caucus.
LSC’s Innovations in Technology Conference in January exhibited innovation of its own with a virtual version of its annual gathering, offering more than 40 sessions to a record 1,100 attendees. A jam-packed 22nd ITC meeting will convene in a few weeks.
In addition, LSC bolstered its leadership in April by naming Will Gunn, former general counsel of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, to the position of vice president for legal affairs and general counsel.
LSC also extended the outreach of its Talk Justice podcast this year by syndicating its programming with Legal Talk Network, a legal media company that hosts and promotes more than 20 podcasts. And thanks to LSC’s Leaders Council and the pro bono efforts of public relations firms and corporate communications departments, the work and mission of LSC were featured in a riveting public service announcement that aired on dozens of media outlets across the country.
As we now look to next year and how we can best support your vital efforts to close the nation’s justice gap, let’s remember the words of two supporters of civil legal aid and LSC who fell silent this year.
Former Vice President Walter Mondale, one of the chief authors of the bill that created LSC in 1974, spoke a few years ago at an LSC event in Minneapolis and reminded us why supporting the mission of LSC is so important.
Only with “a new commitment” to equal access and the mission of LSC “will our country’s promise of justice—reflected in our constitution and the closing words of the Pledge of Allegiance—really be what it should be for all Americans,” he said.
And former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who more than 50 years ago in congressional testimony as the first Republican director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, argued for expanding access to justice through federal funding of legal aid:
“We cannot expect respect for the rule of law if we, as public officials, do not assure access to the legal process. To fail to do so would break faith with those Americans — rich and poor alike — who have confidence in our legal institutions and the notion that disputes are better resolved in courtrooms than on street corners.”
The LSC Board appreciates all that you have done to help make the promise of equal justice a reality and remains committed to supporting your indispensable work. Thank you.