OPINION: Funding cuts could deny legal services to those of limited means
About two months ago, reporter Jo Ciavaglia wrote a compelling article about proposed cuts to Legal Aid funding and the consequences to those in our community whose only access to the legal system exists via Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania (LASP) or a similar program.
As members of the Bucks County Bar Association, we are acutely aware of the dire situation facing LASP and similar programs in providing basic legal services to the indigent and working poor. Unfortunately, the legal aid system has essentially been dying from a “thousand cuts” over the last several years.
The Trump administration’s proposal to cut funding entirely is the last, final death blow to a program that has been a beacon of hope to those who would otherwise have no access to the legal system for representation in and advice about basic legal services. These include landlord/tenant matters, bankruptcy, obtaining proof of identification, child custody, mortgage foreclosure, unemployment, Social Security and domestic violence/protection from abuse proceedings.
Members of our bar association (and others in the region) contribute pro bono hours to represent indigent and financially challenged individuals in those matters, as well as other forms of representation. The Bucks County Bar Association contributes funds each year to LASP, and many members of the association donate their compensation for service as judicial arbitrators directly to LASP. Notably, Elizabeth Fritsch, a Bucks County native and lawyer (and association member) has, with her staff, performed miraculous work to keep LASP afloat and provide as much effective representation as a diminishing budget will permit.
Can our association do more? No doubt we can, and we will. This board of directors, as with its predecessors, is keenly aware of the need within our midst and will endeavor to encourage the provision of additional funds and donated hours at unprecedented levels.
But that’s not enough. For example, our Civil Marginal Income Program is one initiative that we have promoted as an extended outreach to income-challenged citizens. As my board colleague (and editor of the association’s publication, The Writs) Scott Feldman recently noted in a column in that publication, if the 45 percent of funds relied on by LASP were cut, as proposed, “thousands of southeastern Pennsylvania residents will lose access to desperately needed legal services.” (The Writs, Spring 2017 Edition).
On March 29, 2017, 148 members of the House of Representatives, including the 8th District’s Brian Fitzpatrick, sent a letter to the chairman and ranking member on the subcommittee charged with overseeing the funding issue for Legal Services Corp. (LSC, the entity that funds LASP and similar organizations), urging them to maintain adequate funding for LSC. In the letter, the congressmen noted LSC's importance in serving “military families, homeowners and renters, families with children, farmers, the disabled, the elderly and many others across the country, including 112,000 veterans and their families.”
The Bucks County Bar Association will continue to explore more ways of providing assistance to those in need of legal services through pro bono efforts, direct funding and advocacy with our elected representatives. We will be vigilant in our efforts to bring attention to this potentially dire situation.
We ask all elected representatives to, at a minimum, maintain funding levels for LSC and, in turn, LASP, so that deserving citizens are not shut out from the legal system.