WASHINGTON - After years of funding shortfalls, legal aid societies across the country are being overwhelmed by growing numbers of poor and unemployed Americans who face eviction, foreclosure, bankruptcy and other legal problems tied to the recession.
The crush of new clients comes as the cash-strapped agencies cut staff and services.
The nonprofit Legal Services Corp., which funds more than 900 legal-aid offices nationwide, says that the number of people who qualify for assistance has jumped by about 11 million since 2007, because of the recession. Roughly 51 million people are now eligible for assistance - individuals and families who earn less than 125 percent of the federal poverty level, now set at $27,564 a year for a family of four.
The federal government budgeted an 11 percent increase in funding for legal aid this year. That increase, however, is more than offset by the growing demand for services and a recession-driven decline in state funding, charitable gifts and grants, which together traditionally make up half of legal service funding.
That means that legal-aid programs will turn away roughly 1 million valid cases this year, advocates say, about half the requests for assistance they'll receive.
"The impact of the recession on the delivery system for civil legal aid has been dramatic with respect to those nonfederal funds," said Don Saunders, the director of the Civil Legal Services division of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association.
In Cleveland, where unemployment is 10 percent, the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland has seen a 56 percent increase this year in employment cases, such as wage-and-hour disputes and the denial of unemployment insurance for laid-off workers.
The agency, which has 55 full-time lawyers and 1,400 volunteer lawyers, expects to handle more than 900 such cases this year and about 10,000 cases overall. However, it'll turn away some 14,000 other valid, income-eligible cases because it can't meet the demand.
"It's heartbreaking that we have to turn away so many clients," said Melanie Shakarian, the Cleveland agency's director of development. "We have a considerable amount of resources to help low-income people, but even with all that we have, we can't serve everyone who comes to us for help."
Middle-class people also have trouble affording legal help, but with fewer economic resources, the poor are more likely to find their money problems leading to court.
Legal aid offices typically handle cases involving divorces, child custody and a host of consumer issues that can include landlord-tenant disputes, foreclosures, evictions, applications for government benefits and battles with predatory lenders. They often represent battered women who need protection, women who are trying to obtain child support or families trying to secure insurance payments.
Each downward turn of the economy increases the need for services. During the first year of the recession in 2008, 93,000 people contacted the Cleveland agency for help. That was up 35 percent from the year before, Shakarian said. This year, the agency is on pace to get 100,000 calls for assistance. Of these, only about 10 percent will be served.
Nationally, experts estimate that 80 percent of low-income Americans who need legal help in civil cases don't receive any. That comprises "not only people who show up at the door and are turned away, which is a large number, but also those who don't even try because it's so hopeless," said Peter Edelman, who teaches poverty law at Georgetown University in Washington.
In southwest Texas, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid turned away a third of the people who requested help last year. The rate is even higher this year, communications director Cindy Martinez said.
One major reason is the decline in funding from the Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts program. The program collects interest from lawyers' client trust accounts and distributes the money as grants to legal-service organizations nationwide. Nearly $112 million in such funds were distributed last year. That funding is expected to fall 21 percent this year, however, in part because the Federal Reserve slashed the benchmark interest rate to near zero to help fight the recession.
Some states have seen more precipitous declines. Connecticut went from $21 million in Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts funds to $4 million in one year, Saunders said, while Texas funds declined from $30 million to $2 million.
"When those interest rates dropped, they took legal aid with them," Martinez said.
After providing $390 million for programs funded by the Legal Services Corp. this year - an 11 percent increase over 2008 - Congress is poised to up the ante again. The House of Representatives has requested $440 million for fiscal year 2010, President Barack Obama asked for $435 million and the Senate has called for $400 million.
House and Senate conferees will settle on a final amount, but it's unlikely to approach the previous inflation-adjusted peaks of $750 million in 1981 and $554 million in 1995, according to a new report by the Center for American Progress, a liberal research center. The report found that the Legal Services Corp.'s inflation-adjusted funding this fiscal year is the lowest in the program's 35-year history, an estimated $6.85 per person.
"We're at less than half of where we were when President Reagan was inaugurated," said Saunders, of the legal aid and defender association. He noted that federal Legal Services Corp. funding has followed a typical pattern since the 1980s, increasing when Democrats control Washington and declining when Republicans are in the majority.
Ted Frank, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative policy research center, expressed the conservative sentiment, saying, "There are better ways to help the poor than by sending in more lawyers."
He suggested changing the rules that make legal representation so costly, such as eliminating the third year of law school and bar examinations. Doing so, he said, would free more time for private lawyers to provide pro bono work for the poor. He also said there was little research to show that the legal needs of the poor couldn't be addressed at current funding levels. He suggested that legal aid offices already are taking just the strongest cases and turning away only weaker, less meritorious ones.
Marcia Cypen, the executive director of Legal Services of Greater Miami, disputes that contention. She said her agency turned away cases involving consumer issues not because they didn't have merit but because it had to focus its scarce resources on the most urgent and needy.
"It's not that they're weaker cases," Cypen said. "We have to select cases that go to core survival issues: food, shelter, income protection for vulnerable populations. It's not that the other cases aren't important. They're things that people need, but they just won't die if they don't get them."