As Congress considers President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts, over a thousand legal academics are protesting one defunding decision that threatens America’s deepest commitment to equal justice under law. Trump has proposed cutting all but $33 million in funding for the federal Legal Services Corporation [LSC], down from current levels of $385 million. As the letter signed by a thousand law professors notes, “for over four decades, the LSC has provided essential financial support for nonprofit legal aid programs throughout the nation, which serve close to two million low income individuals annually. Its elimination would price law out of reach for those who need it most.” Over eighty percent of the legal needs of the American poor are unmet and LSC funding addresses basic needs, such as domestic violence, housing, family law, and veterans’ benefits.
One dispiriting aspect of America’s recent presidential campaigns is the almost complete silence surrounding access to justice. The lack of national policy discussion is not for lack of a problem. According to the World Justice Project, the United States ranks 67th (tied with Uganda) of 97 countries in the accessibility and affordability of civil justice. Other developed democracies devote three to ten times more funding to civil legal aid than the United States.
As a consequence, a majority of those who seek help from federally funded civil legal aid programs are turned away due to lack of resources. The budget for the LSC has already declined almost 40 percent over the last three decades. Only 5,000 attorneys serve a nation with over 60 million low-income individuals eligible for assistance. Funding for direct legal services for low income individuals comes to just $5.85 per eligible person per year, and would drop dramatically if federal funding dried up. In 2016, Americans spent more on Halloween costumes for pets than on LSC grants.
Those grants are highly cost-effective. Over thirty studies show that legal aid delivers vastly more in benefits than it costs. Every dollar invested in legal aid on matters such as evictions and domestic violence saves taxpayers down the line in social consequences of homelessness and family violence. Much of this aid helps individuals meet their most basic human needs and prevents exploitation of the most vulnerable groups: veterans, the elderly, disaster victims, and impoverished children.
LSC grants also help people meet their needs themselves, without costly interventions, or through partnership with private lawyers working for free. Assistance for self-represented parties is the primary offering at offices receiving federal support. Those offices also partner with law firm and corporate “pro bono public” programs that deliver essential charitable services. Without LSC grants, there would be far fewer staff available to screen cases, and train and mentor volunteer private attorneys.
When last I attempted to represent a poor woman pro bono in a relatively straightforward domestic violence case, I found myself stymied before being helped by a trained lawyer. I am a Stanford Law School professor, the member of two state bars, fluent in the English language, and reasonably computer literate and I couldn’t do it myself. My client was none of the above and without the kind of assistance that legal aid attorneys can provide, she would have remained in a life-threatening situation. Trump’s proposed cuts put people’s most basic needs and fundamental rights at risk.
At least part of the problem of access to justice stems from the lack of widespread recognition that there is a serious problem. Although the vast majority of Americans support provision of legal services to those who cannot afford it, fourth fifths also incorrectly believe that the poor are entitled to counsel in civil cases. Two thirds think that low-income individuals would have no difficulty finding legal assistance, a perception wildly out of touch with reality.
We can and must do better. It is a shameful irony that the nation with one of the world’s highest concentrations of lawyers does so little to make legal services accessible. ‘Equal justice under law’ is one of America’s most proudly proclaimed and routinely violated legal principles. It decorates courthouse doors, but in no way describes what goes on behind them. Defunding the Legal Service would make a tragic situation infinitely worse.
Deborah L. Rhode is one of the country’s leading scholars in the fields of legal ethics and gender, law, and public policy. An author of over 20 books, including The Beauty Bias, Women and Leadership and Moral Leadership, she is the nation’s most frequently cited scholar in legal ethics. She is the director of the Stanford Center on the Legal Profession and Founding President of the International Association of Legal Ethics.