Editorials

Don’t cut Legal Services’ budget

TNS

The U.S. House is poised to save the country a whopping $75 million by slashing the budget for the Legal Services Corporation (out of $3.9 trillion in the federal spending plan). The savings, of course, will come at a cost, both human and financial.

Thousands of low-income and working poor Americans will find it more difficult to find a legal advocate. Indeed, their need for a lawyer often is no different from the needs of those who can afford counsel’s hourly rate.

The blow of the proposed 20 percent cut to LSC’s funding will be felt nationwide, with South Florida, given its high rate of poverty, feeling a particular sting:

▪ It would cut $4 million from Florida’s take for Legal Services. In Miami-Dade, Legal Services of Greater Miami would lose $600,000. In Broward County, Coast to Coast Legal Aid of South Florida would lose $400,000.

▪ According to Marcia Cypen, executive director of Legal Services of Greater Miami, it will have to trim five lawyers from its staff, going from 25 to 20. That means up to 6,000 clients potentially will not be able to get help next year.

▪ In Broward County, Barbara Prager, executive director of Coast to Coast Legal Aid, too, foresees cutting five lawyers, going from 15 to 10. Coast to Coast helps 3,000 clients a year.

The House bill ultimately will deny legal assistance to more than 350,000 low-income Americans, including military families and victims of domestic violence, undercutting the fundamental American commitment to equal justice.

By cutting LSC’s funding to the lowest level in 15 years, the bill would cause layoffs of more than 1,000 staff, including more than 430 attorneys at local programs, and the closure of 85 legal aid offices nationwide.

In other words, the people about whom America’s rhetoric claims to care deeply — veterans who defended our freedoms, children, families, the mistreated — risk being victimized twice, once by unscrupulous or insensitive institutions and again by being unable to find legal counsel.

Lawmakers in the U.S. House must be able to persuasively answer the question: How will this serve the greater good?

We’ll make it easy for them: It won’t. Instead, the 20-percent cut will foist more residents onto already overloaded local facilities and services.

As a result of the work that local Legal Services offices do, fewer people become homeless because the lawyers help veterans access benefits that they have been denied; they go to court for residents facing foreclosure and eviction.

In Miami-Dade, Legal Services has filed a lawsuit against out-of-state slumlords who live luxuriously while their Liberty City tenants suffer in inhuman conditions that the building owners refuse to address.

Last year, its attorneys went to federal court and successfully secured Medicaid-funded therapy for a local autistic child.

In Broward, Coast to Coast similarly goes to bat for seniors and veterans who are due benefits and helps secure restraint orders to keep abused spouses and their children safer.

Then this: Legal Services has already seen funding from other sources plummet. The program is supplemented by “IOTA” funds, the interest that comes from lawyers’ trust accounts — money that they hold in trust for clients. With interest rates so low, the revenue raised has taken a huge hit.

The $75 million “saved” by cutting funding to the Legal Services Corporation just isn’t worth the real, unnecessary and painful costs.

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