LSC Asks Congress To Fund Free Legal Aid Amid Pandemic

By Marco Poggio
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Law360 (February 9, 2021, 4:33 PM EST) -- The Legal Services Corporation is asking Congress to earmark up to half a billion dollars to keep funding free civil legal aid to low-income Americans in a time when legal assistance is badly needed to weather the impact of the pandemic, the nonprofit said Tuesday.

LSC's president, Ronald S. Flagg, told Law360 the organization has asked members of the House Appropriations Committee to include anything between $350 million and $500 million in the COVID-19 relief package currently under consideration. It seeks to fund programs helping the underprivileged with legal issues increasingly common during the pandemic, such as navigating rental assistance programs and eviction moratoriums. 

Congress is considering a relief package worth $1.9 trillion dollars to assist struggling Americans in various ways. But many of them will be left out because they won't be able to afford the legal aid they need to get assistance, Flagg said. 

He added, "Legal assistance is urgently needed to prevent thousands of people from being evicted in violation of the moratoriums, which are not self-enforcing. You need legal aid lawyers and resources to make sure that the rental reaches the people who need the assistance."

The same is true of assistance programs aimed at helping people with housing issues, lost or lacking income, and health problems, Flagg said.

Despite eviction moratoria, eviction cases continued throughout the pandemic, accounting for nearly 40% of all housing cases LSC attorneys handled in 2020, nearly double the year before, according to the organization.

The funding LSC is requesting will help ensure the organization's 132 grantees across the country can continue to provide legal aid at no cost to people meeting federal poverty guidelines, Flagg said.

Flag said the $50 million Congress appropriated for the LSC in March when passing the CARES Act was helpful but not nearly enough to fully cover the nonprofit's operative costs.

According to its own assessment, the organization said that an overwhelming majority of LSC staffers found the funding insufficient to keep up with a steeply increased demand for legal help in recent months.

The House approved a $100 million funding bill for LSC as part of the HEROES Act in September, but no funding was included in the relief legislation that Congress passed in December, the organization said in a statement.

Flagg and the nonprofit's chairman, John G. Levi, sent a letter to Congress leaders serving in key committees last week urging them to include funding to boost the operations of the LSC, which employs over full-time 10,000 staffers in 852 offices across the United States.

"LSC grantees are on the frontlines assisting people living in poverty during the pandemic," Flagg and Levi said in the letter addressed to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, Senator Patt Murray of Washington, Rep. Harrold Nadler of New York and Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia.

In the letter, Flagg told legislators the nonprofit had estimated that over 5 million households who qualify for LSC-funded services are at risk of evictions across the country and that the organization needs $2.5 billion to be able to meet significantly higher demand for free legal services spurred by pandemic conditions, particularly in cases involving evictions.

None of the senators and representatives addressed in the letter immediately returned emails and calls seeking comments Tuesday afternoon, and neither did their Republican counterparts sitting on the same committees.

LSC's request has received some degree of bipartisan support in the House. The two co-chairs of the Congressional Access to Legal Aid Caucus, Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, a Democrat, and Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican, both from Pennsylvania, are preparing a letter for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a bid to garner more support in the chamber, Flagg said.

"Legal aid funding is a lesser-known but important piece of our recovery plan. As millions of Americans face pandemic-related financial instability and challenges, legal aid has become more essential than ever," Rep. Tom Emmer, a Republican from Minnesota who's member of the caucus, told Law360.

Other members of the caucus did not immediately return emails and phone calls seeking comments Tuesday afternoon. However, some of them had released statements of support to the LSC promising to fight for the funding.

Fitzpatrick said he was grateful for the assistance of legal aid organizations, recognizing "just how significant the support they provided throughout the pandemic truly has been," adding that it was "imperative" to fund LSC adequately to continue to help vulnerable populations.

"We want to try to grow the legal aid caucus so that we have a broader reach," Scanlon said, adding that funding for the organization has not kept pace with higher demands for legal assistance.

--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.

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