10:41, March 16 316 0 theguardian.com

2017-03-16 10:41:03
Legal services in unprecedented danger under Trump's budget proposal

Pavita Krishnaswamy stands on the fifth floor of housing court in downtown Brooklyn and rattles off the programs that would be hurt if Donald Trump succeeds in pushing through cuts to legal services that are outlined in a budget proposal released by the White House on Thursday.

“Domestic violence. Immigration. Predatory lending. Consumer protections. Foreclosures. HIV/LGBTQ cases.”

With drifts of snow from the day before still crippling travel outside, it’s a quiet day in court, explains Krishnaswamy, deputy director of litigation in Brooklyn for Legal Services New York. A quiet day means that the halls of the courthouse are standing room only, but the lines in the halls are shorter, and it’s not necessary to turn sideways to walk. People here are fighting landlords for failure to provide heat in the middle of winter or to remedy mold, for locking them out, for illegally inflating rents.

For the time being, the federal government provides $375m a year, through a 1960s-era agency called the Legal Services Corporation, to help such clients across the country. The funding has survived repeated Republican efforts to eliminate it on the grounds that it’s too costly (it’s less than one-ten-thousandth of the federal budget) or that the services aren’t essential (read on).

But legal services funding now appears to be in unprecedented danger. A budget “blueprint” released by the White House on Thursday, while increasing military spending by $52bn and homeland security spending by $2.8bn, would eliminate LSC, in addition to 18 other independent agencies with small budgets – including the Appalachian regional commission, the chemical safety board, the Denali commission, the US interagency council on homelessness and the overseas private investment corporation.

Don Saunders, vice-president of civil legal services at the National Legal Aid and Defender Association and an expert on civil legal issues, said Thursday morning that “LSC forms the backbone of the civil justice system in the United States that serves low- and moderate-income people” and that cuts to LSC could in particular strip protections for seniors and people who live in rural areas.

“Without the federal support, we can go back to where legal aid started in this country,” Saunders said. “We’ve had urban legal aid programs for over a century. But it was the federal support that created the capacity to expand out into rural areas. So you will see a great retrenchment in that regard without federal support.

“You will see veterans and victims of domestic violence, victims of natural disasters, seniors – a growing population with tremendous legal needs. You will see greatly reduced resources available to make critical legal needs across the United States.”

Advocates say legal services funding is essential because equality before the law is not possible in a system that is indecipherable for non-professionals and in which one side almost always has lawyers while the other side almost always does not.

“Not having a lawyer in housing court can be catastrophic, because the system of regulations combined with procedural law – it’s a thicket,” said Krishnaswamy.

Until recently, 90% of all landlords in housing court cases had lawyers, while 90% of tenants did not, Krishnaswamy said.

“There’s no way a layperson could navigate this courthouse and get an optimally just outcome. It’s just not possible.”

Domestic violence cases can require particularly urgent legal attention, she said.

“The primary need of people who are being subjected to domestic violence is a safe place to stay that is separate and apart from their abuser. In many cases, it’s almost impossible to find. You have women, predominantly, who are stuck in really desperate situations. Something’s got to give.”

Programs funded by LSC are the main source of legal assistance for women attempting to escape domestic violence. In Alameda County, California, where there are five domestic violence shelters that are always full, Bay Area Legal Aid is more or less the only group providing women with legal representation in family law cases. The group is funded in part by LSC, and there is no one else in the county with the capacity to handle their family law cases if Bay Area Legal Aid experienced a reduction in staff, said Erin Scott, the executive director of the Family Violence Law Center in Oakland.

“Our services are going to helping people achieve, get and keep the basics of life,” said Raun Rasmussen, executive director of Legal Services NY, which gets about $11.7m a year in LSC funding. “A roof over their head. A subsistence level of income. Safety from domestic violence. There’s nothing extravagant about services that help people get and keep those essentials of life.”

Saunders said that LSC has many advocates on Washington, from supreme court chief justice John Roberts to Republican senator Richard Shelby, who chairs the justice subcommittee of the appropriations committee, and many members of Congress.

“Obviously we’re disappointed, but the conversation shifts to the Congress as it always does this time of year,” said Saunders.

“We really think Congress can and will stand up to this challenge.”

Rasmussen said attacks on legal aid challenged basic constitutional guarantees of equality before the law.

“One of the core values of our country is equal justice for all,” said Rasmussen. “And that our fundamental rights and opportunities are based on a level playing field. And without this funding, people are forced to go to court without a lawyer, and they’re usually facing an adversary who has a lawyer. And there’s nothing fair about that.”