New Legal Aid DC Leader Faces Growing Needs, Budget Cuts

By Alison Knezevich | May 5, 2023, 7:02 PM EDT ·

Vikram Swaruup is settling into his new role as executive director of Legal Aid of the District of Columbia at a time when the organization's clients have been hit hard by inflation, the end of enhanced safety-net benefits and the halting of pandemic-related protections against evictions, foreclosures and debt collection.

Vikram Swaruup

Vikram Swaruup

The growing need for legal assistance among poor Washington, D.C., residents comes as service providers face steep budget cuts to the local Access to Justice initiative in Mayor Muriel Bowser's spending plan. The program is Legal Aid D.C.'s single largest funding source, Swaruup told Law360 in a recent interview, with about half of the Legal Aid staff being paid through those funds.

The mayor's budget would reduce Access to Justice funding from about $31 million to $13 million. While a D.C. Council committee's own recent budget proposal would restore about $3.9 million, legal aid advocates say critical services are still at risk. A full council vote on the budget is scheduled for later this month.

In a statement to Law360, the district's budget team said that federal American Rescue Plan Act funding that had bolstered the program in recent years "was always understood to be time-limited" and aimed to address the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The mayor's budget proposal still "exceeds pre-pandemic funding levels by more than 20%" they said.

Swaruup was confronted with the budget debate soon after he took over as Legal Aid D.C.'s leader at the end of February. He's the group's first new executive director in 10 years, having succeeded longtime leader Eric Angel. He's also its first openly gay leader. He joined the organization after serving as chief deputy under now-former D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, and he previously worked as an appellate attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

At Legal Aid D.C., the district's oldest and largest civil legal services provider, Swaruup oversees a staff of about 90 employees. Swaruup recently spoke with Law360 about legal services funding, how his personal experiences shaped his career path, and more. 

What have been your priorities as you've started on the job?

One is getting to know the various constituents that we work with — both our staff and our board — as well as various other legal service providers and the courts. That has been a really important part of what I've been working on.

The next is related to the budget. The mayor's budget came out about four or five weeks after I started and includes an almost 60% cut to Access to Justice funding, which is our largest single source of funding. About 40% of our budget is from the Access to Justice fund. So I've been really focused on figuring out how we can restore that cut. There are proposed budget cuts to other programs as well. The most important is the cut to the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, from $43 million to $8 million. If that were to go through, the city would run out of rental assistance in the very first month of the 2024 budget. That would have a devastating effect on our clients.

What are the top issues for which people seek Legal Aid D.C.'s services?

The main issue is housing — eviction defense and foreclosure prevention, and housing condition issues. Many people have defenses to eviction, whether that's something to do with how the landlord has maintained or not maintained the property, or errors that landlords make, such as saying that someone hasn't paid their rent when they have. Having a lawyer can really make the difference in whether somebody gets thrown out of their apartment and onto the street.

On top of that, we do a lot of work in public benefits. During the pandemic, unemployment insurance was a huge area of practice for us. Nutrition assistance benefits are a really important issue, as is helping people navigate Social Security disability and Medicaid.

We also have our family law practice. There was a surge in domestic violence during the pandemic, and those numbers have not come back down. We've seen a high need among people trying to secure civil protection orders to keep them safe. We also help folks with custody, child support and divorce.

How are pandemic-related issues still affecting access to justice for D.C. residents?

During the pandemic, there were many protections in place. There were boosts to income support, as well as social safety net programs that helped keep our clients afloat, that have just gotten pulled out from under them over the last year or so. That, combined with the end of the various moratoria, means there's basically a backlog of eviction, foreclosure and debt collection cases. We're seeing a surge in those cases coming to the courts right now, so there's a surge in demand for our services.

We want to meet that need, because these are cases where it really matters whether or not you have a lawyer. It can mean the difference between whether you can stay in your home or not, whether you can preserve your credit or not, whether you can stay safe in a situation where you're facing abuse. So it's critical that people have legal services in these areas.

What do you see as the role of the private bar in legal services in the district?

One is really robust pro bono practices and making sure that they're taking on a significant number of clients that match the need that we're seeing as legal services providers. I think that there is a lot of desire on the part of the private bar to take a pro bono case when it offers a trial or another opportunity for a junior lawyer to gain skills. And that's great, and we really look for those cases. But unfortunately, that's not a lot of our cases. A lot of our cases are helping somebody work through a challenging situation, and working together to try to accomplish the best possible outcome for somebody in need. And so what we really need is for the private bar to commit to the day-to-day cases that we take on.

Another really important role for the private bar is being rooted in the communities where they live and work. Before the pandemic, when most of our intake was in person, we had a lot of support from the private bar in doing that intake, and being in clinics, which is really fantastic because it gave members of the private bar an opportunity to get to know our client community. I think it makes us all feel more connected as people who live and work in the city, and I think that that's really important. And so I'm trying to figure out how we can get back to reestablishing those bonds that have been a little broken because we all interact a little differently now.

And then, as the government cuts back on investments in legal services and investments in communities, the financial contributions from the private bar have become even more important, whether it's contributions to legal services directly or to other programs that help support and uplift our client community.

In a piece on Legal Aid D.C.'s website about your first week on the job, you wrote of immigrating to this country from India and coming out. How have those experiences shaped your perspective and the career path that you chose to take?

I went to law school because I was inspired by lawyers who were fighting on behalf of LGBTQ people. I wanted to become a civil rights lawyer. So what's inspired my entire career trajectory is my personal experiences of witnessing discrimination, harassment and violence against the communities that I'm a part of. That really affected what I chose to do in my life and it continues to affect me to this day.

When my parents came to this country, they hoped to build a better future for their family. I was born in India, and my parents moved to the United States when I was 1 year old. But they really struggled economically. So they decided to go back to India when I was 6. And then we came back five years after that after my parents were able to save some money and rethink how they could make things work.

So many people in this country work really, really hard and struggle to get by, and that's the story of so many people in our client community. I'm drawn to work that helps people navigate that and hopefully find a pathway that is fulfilling and nourishing for them amid the challenges and the odds that people face trying to get by in this country.

It's an honor to be able to serve this community. To be able to play some small part in their resilience is a humbling role. I'm really excited to do the work.

--Graphics by Ben Jay. Editing by Robert Rudinger.

All Access is a series of discussions with leaders in the access to justice field. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

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