As most people are aware, the United States Constitution ensures that everyone who is charged with a crime is provided an attorney. This legal right, which provides a basic level of fairness to all people accused of criminal conduct, is a bedrock of our country’s judicial system. However, what might surprise people is that parties to civil litigation are not guaranteed a right to a lawyer. Fortunately , in 1974, under the Nixon administration, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) was created to help provide low-income individuals with legal representation for civil proceedings. LSC helps by allocating financial resources to nonprofit legal aid offices throughout the country.
LSC resources help people on a variety of civil matters, including assisting families escape domestic abuse, disaster relief, Social Security disability, federal agency casework, housing and foreclosure cases and consumer fraud. Obviously, older Americans benefit from the services provided by legal aid offices funded through LSC. For example, Anna-Marie Johnson, the executive director of Nevada Legal Services, said to The Atlantic regarding seniors’ dependence on LSC funding: “It may be different in other states, but the largest portion of the population out in the rural areas of Nevada are seniors,” and “there are a lot of housing issues, and there's a lot of need for end-of-life planning like estate planning, wills, guardianships, and other things like that.”
Through the Montana Legal Services Association (MLSA), LSC has been able to help seniors impacted by housing issues. One case involved an elderly disabled veteran living in federally subsidized housing whose only source of income was Social Security. According to LSC, the housing authority indicated his rent would double because he no longer qualified for a two-bedroom apartment. Working with local attorneys at MLSA, it was demonstrated that a reasonable accommodation was needed for a two-bedroom apartment so that he could have adequate space for an exercise machine. Due to MLSA’s assistance, the disabled veteran now pays only 30% of his income towards rent.
In addition, LSC reported a story about nonprofit legal aid organization Kansas Legal Services (KLS), which helped a low-income elderly woman who was victimized by her bank and payday lender. With the assistance of a KLS attorney, the elderly women received money back from the bank and the payday lender altered the original loan to allow the women to more easily afford food and medication.
Clearly, LSC provides critical legal services to older Americans across the country. Therefore, I find it bitterly disappointing that the White House has continually proposed budgets to eliminate LSC. The administration has argued that control of civil legal services for low-income people should be in the hands of state and local governments, who better recognize their constituents’ unique needs. However, that argument is easily countered because the LSC website states, “LSC funds are locally controlled and already set their own priorities based on their assessments of their communities’ needs. LSC distributes more than 93% of its funding to locally run organizations.”
Thankfully, Congress and the private sector legal community don’t agree with proposals to eliminate LSC. For instance, the most recent budgets passed by Congress allocated increased levels of funding for LSC. In addition, in 2017, 150 of our country’s major law firms signed a letter to the White House advocating funding for the program. The private sector firms argued that their pro bono legal services work in conjunction with legal aid agencies that receive money from LSC. The law firms stated they would not be able to provide the same level service to low-income individuals without the partnership of LSC funding.
If we want every person to be treated equally under the law, fully funding LSC is an important step in the right direction. Despite the White House’s proposed budgets, bipartisan congressional support and the private sector have stood strong to ensure that LSC can continue to help low-income seniors navigate civil legal matters.
Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Assistant Director for Aging Policy at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services. He holds a B.A. from American University in political science and a J.D. from New York Law School. Prior to joining B’nai B’rith International he worked in the Office of Presidential Correspondence for the Obama White House, practiced as an attorney at Covington and Burling, LLP, worked as an aide for New York City Council Member Tony Avella and interned for Congressman Gary Ackerman’s office. Click here to read more from Evan Carmen.
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