Federal cuts threaten access to justice
December 20, 2011 · Updated 4:59 PM
By Reagan Dunn
King County Council
Everywhere you look, local, state and federal governments are turning over every rock to find programs to reduce or eliminate. Taxpayers have made it repeatedly clear that non-essential programs and services need to yield to those that are determined to be essential.
As a King County councilmember and former federal prosecutor, I argue that our nation must not abandon its commitment to equal justice by doing what it can to protect funding for the federal Legal Services Corporation.
Here in Washington and in King County we have been forced to scale back our fiscal commitments to those activities directly related to core governmental functions. Undeniably, the fair and proper administration of justice is a core function of government
The federal government provides more than $400 million to the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) on an annual basis. This organization funds local legal aid programs designed to ensure pro bono legal services for our most vulnerable citizens – those at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty threshold.
Although defendants in criminal cases are provided a lawyer, four out of five low-income Washington residents are unable to get legal help for civil proceedings. These include landlord-tenant disputes, protection for survivors of domestic violence, and issues with child support, home foreclosures and bankruptcies.
The LSC helps fund Washington state’s flagship legal program, the Northwest Justice Project, which handles approximately 18,000 cases annually benefitting more than 40,000 people. In 2010, more than 5,000 Washington state attorneys contributed more than 75,000 hours of pro bono assistance to low-income individuals and families.
Federal budgets are at a precipice as Congress rightfully looks to scale back the size and scope of our nation’s obligations. However, at a time when civil legal aid programs and volunteer attorneys are overwhelmed with cases, cutting federal funding is simply the wrong thing to do.
Access to equal justice goes beyond partisan politics. Legal volunteers see the widening gap between those who can afford legal aid and those who cannot. Abandoning this effort now will send a disturbing message to those in need.
I serve on the Washington State Bar Association’s Pro Bono and Legal Aid Committee, which works to expand access to justice for Washington citizens. The proposed federal cuts will not be made up by state or local governments and the private sector. The result will be less service to low-income clients and more citizens who are not served by our justice system.
Lawmakers in Washington, D.C., have many responsibilities, and they may not fully understand the work of the LSC. They may not be aware that current proposals would return service to 1981 levels. Before it is too late, I implore Congress to realize that nearly one million cases are undertaken annually as a result of these funds that would not otherwise be handled.
Here in King County, we recognize and honor those who volunteer their time to provide legal services for those who otherwise could not afford it. This is a time for elected officials, businesses and the community to commend the volunteerism of attorneys and the positive impact they have on people struggling to survive poverty.
Government is changing on every level. Based on current and projected revenues, we no longer have the ability to support many public programs. As we enter what many are calling the “new normal,” we need to reinforce the principal that every citizen has access to necessary legal resources.
My hope is that our elected federal leaders will stand up to ensure that our justice system works for everyone.
Reagan Dunn is the outgoing Chairman of the Law, Justice, Health, and Human Services Committee in King County and a candidate for state Attorney General.