Sandwiched between the recent headlines about President Trump’s proposals for Meals on Wheels and Big Bird was news that the administration will also seek to end funding for the Legal Services Corp. (LSC). For Vermonters, the radical cuts proposed by the president portend disaster.
The LSC is a non-profit corporation that was formed by an act of Congress in 1974. Its mission was and remains to ensure equal access to justice under the law for all Americans. In advocating for the creation of the LSC, President Nixon wrote:
“America’s system of law now requires equal treatment for all in our courts of criminal justice. It is no less important that equal access be afforded those who seek redress through our civil laws. We propose no special favors for any group in our society, nor do we seek to mandate the use of the legal system to the exclusion of other social institutions as instruments of social progress. We propose, simply, to protect and preserve a basic right of all Americans.”
The LSC and its various state-level entities and partners, such as Legal Services Law Line of Vermont and Vermont Legal Aid, fulfill this promise by putting lawyers in courthouses across the state to represent individuals who could not otherwise afford it. The LSC model is based on a simple idea: If everyone has legal representation, then everyone benefits
Cuts to the LSC and its state partners are wrong. They threaten not only those most vulnerable, but they have the potential to deteriorate a legal system that struggles each day to do more with less.
What does this mean to Vermonters? Over the past 10 years, fewer Vermonters have been able to afford to hire an attorney. Approximately 72 percent of all cases in the system involve one or more self-represented party.
For a self-represented litigant, navigating court process is like deciding on the right spot to make an incision to remove your gallbladder. Those without counsel are effectively guessing and feeling their way through a complicated series of choices and hearings, trying to find their way to a resolution without sacrificing a vital right.
Lawyers make the law work. When a legal aid attorney appears in a case, I know that she will give her clients a fair and accurate assessment of the case. Nine times out of 10, this means a shortcut to settlement or resolution. That is a benefit to my client and to the other side.
Even if plans for total defunding are not enacted, cuts to the LSC are all but guaranteed. Eric Avildsen of Vermont Legal Aid, said recently that his organization and Law Line are anticipating cuts of 5 to 10 percent within the next six months as part of continuing funding resolutions. Any budget this Congress passes will likely deepen the reductions further.
On top of federal cuts, Gov. Scott’s budget proposal contains two steep cuts to Legal Aid that total $100,000. When totaled with the anticipated federal reductions, Vermont faces a loss of over a million dollars in LSC and legal aid funds.
As Vermonters and as citizens, we have to ask ourselves if the savings promised are worth the price we will pay. A cut to Legal Aid on the state-level might save you a penny on your tax bill. A cut to LSC on the federal level won’t even show up on your return. But with each cut, the cost of doing business goes up substantially. For low income Vermonters, cuts at the state and federal level mean fewer resources when trouble arises. For the rest of us, it will mean more delays, greater legal costs, and longer waits. For employers and businesses, it means a more fragile workforce as employees facing issues previously covered by legal aid projects will have nowhere to go. Minor problems become major. Major problems become debilitating. That is a cost to each of us, and one that is likely to exceed the penny we keep today.
As we head into the budget season, we need to remind our leaders that Legal Services funding is an essential part of protecting and preserving the basic rights of all Americans.
Daniel Richardson, of Montpelier, is a partner at the Montpelier Law Firm of Tarrant, Gillies & Richardson. He is the current President of the Vermont Bar Foundation, which oversees private grant and fundraising for Legal Aid, Law Line and other legal charities.
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