In-House Leaders Push Congress To Raise Legal Aid Funding

By Justin Wise | May 27, 2021, 4:12 PM EDT

A coalition of general counsel from more than 200 corporations has signed a letter calling on Congress to substantially increase its spending for the nonprofit Legal Services Corp., which is the largest source of funding for U.S. civil legal aid organizations.

The push comes as groups across the country struggle to meet the high demand for free legal services prompted by the pandemic and as the LSC prepares to seek more than $1 billion in federal appropriations.

In a letter sent to every member of Congress, the in-house leaders said that while the COVID-19 pandemic "begins to subside," many of the social and economic problems sparked by it will be "severe and lasting." They called for an infusion of cash in fiscal year 2022 to meet the increased demand for legal assistance around such matters as housing and employment, which they noted have been disproportionately felt by people of color.

"At the heart of the American promise of equal justice is civil legal aid, which helps people protect their basic human needs when they are put in jeopardy by legal problems," the letter, dated Tuesday, said. "The COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened the urgency of the need to expand access to this critical help."

Corporate counsel from some of the nation's largest companies, including Inc., JP Morgan, Nike Inc. and NBC Universal, were among those who signed the letter. The Biden administration is expected to unveil its first budget proposal on Friday.

"It's a signature voice that members of both aisles really have their ear to the ground to," Don Saunders, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association's senior vice president of policy, told Law360 on Thursday. The NLADA helped with the logistics of sending the letter, Saunders said.

The LSC is set to ask Congress on Friday for more than $1 billion in its 2022 budget, more than doubling its federal appropriations in the current fiscal year, President Ronald Flagg told Law360 on Thursday. He said the request is a response to the "chronic underfunding" civil legal aid organizations have received historically, as well as the "aggravated justice gap" caused by the health crisis.

Legal aid providers generally offer free assistance in civil matters to Americans who are 125% below the federal poverty line. Their sources of funding come from philanthropic, federal and state efforts. The LSC touts itself as the largest funder of civil legal aid, regularly doling out money to 132 organizations.

Providers in this space are historically underresourced, however, the pandemic compounded those problems, as the unemployment rate surged in response to lockdowns that swept the nation. In July, an LSC survey found an 18% increase in the number of people eligible for civil legal assistance.

The LSC has also projected that more than 5 million Americans who qualify for civil legal aid are at risk of eviction. LSC grantees' work on housing cases roughly doubled in 2020 despite the eviction moratoria, according to the group's data.

In December, Congress passed a spending bill with $465 million earmarked for the LSC in the current fiscal year, representing a $25 million bump from the prior year. But the organization received no aid in the $1.9 trillion relief bill Biden signed in March, despite seeking up to $500 million. Flagg said the money would go toward supporting the aid programs included in the legislation.

"The benefits in the coronavirus bill, whether they're unemployment benefits, rental assistance benefits, or it's an extension on eviction moratoriums, those things are not self-executing," Flagg said, noting many Americans need a lawyer to assist them in these matters.

"A relatively small investment in legal aid would help the hundreds of billions of dollars of substantive assistance reach the people they're supposed to help," he said.

In addition to its budget request, the LSC in April called on the Biden administration to provide supplemental funding of between $350 million and $500 million in its proposed infrastructure package. Flagg has said the money would go toward ensuring organizations can meet such high demand, including hiring additional attorneys.

Nearly 9 in 10 low-income Americans receive little to no legal help when they are presented with a legal problem, according to LSC data. And the gap between the demand and the resources available only widened in 2020, Franchesca Hamilton-Acker, a legal aid attorney in Louisiana, told Law360 in December.

The new leadership of the Congressional Access to Legal Aid Caucus previously expressed support for the LSC's funding request of half a billion dollars in additional relief. Flagg also noted that he's received no indication from the White House or members of Congress that they aren't supportive of offering more financial aid.

But where the uncertainty lies is the broader disputes between Republicans and Democrats as they work out the details of competing budget proposals, he said.

The letter from corporate counsel marks the second time during the pandemic a band of in-house business leaders has signed on to a call for more legal aid funding. The latest letter also comes about a month after 41 bipartisan state attorneys general made a similar request of Congress. Both requests could go a long way, Flagg said.

"You expect LSC's president and chairman of the board to go to Congress and ask for more money for legal aid," he said. "It's less expected that you would hear from 200 of the nation's biggest private companies, that you would hear from a robust, bipartisan group of state attorneys general. It underscores the breadth of recognition around the country that access to the courts is really fundamental in America."

--Additional reporting by Marco Poggio, Emma Cueto and Andrew Kragie. Editing by Orlando Lorenzo.

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