What Will Happen to Americans Who Can't Afford an Attorney?

President Trump’s budget would eliminate the Legal Services Corporation, which helps low-income individuals obtain representation in civil proceedings.

An attorney at Staten Island Legal Services helps a client with foreclosure paperwork in 2011. (Andrew Burton / Reuters)

On the campaign trail, President Trump pledged “to bring hope to every forgotten stretch of this country.” But his new budget has critics questioning whether that pledge can be reconciled with his plan to eliminate the Legal Services Corporation, a move whose impact would be severe for low-income Americans living in impoverished rural and urban communities.

Established by Congress in 1974 as a public nonprofit corporation, it funds more than a hundred civil legal-aid programs throughout the country. In most states, those funds account for between one-third and one-half of the organization’s budget; in some poorer states, like Alabama, LSC provides about 80 percent of the funding.

“If you look at the states that have the lowest ranking when it comes to access to help from a civil legal-aid program, nine out of 10 of them supported Trump,” said Martha Bergmark, a former LSC president. “It's very hard to square the president's promise to help ‘the forgotten America’ by eliminating this program. It just doesn't add up.”

In many ways, legal-aid organizations fill the same role in civil proceedings that public defenders perform in the criminal-justice system: providing legal representation for those unable to afford it themselves. The Sixth Amendment requires the existence of public-defender systems, which often have their own budgetary woes, but civil legal-aid programs have no such constitutional mandate. Instead, they rely on support from both parties and funding from federal and state governments, private foundations, and other nonprofit groups to exist.

“Most Americans don't really have an idea of what civil legal aid is, but the Legal Services Corporation is absolutely the backbone of our nation's commitment to justice for all,” Bergmark said. “It's just a devastating prospect to think that after such a long history of bipartisan support and commitment, that we would be at this stage.”

The services those organizations provide can be life-changing. Legal-aid lawyers in multiple states told me their offices help low-income Americans fight foreclosures and avoid evictions, protect domestic-violence survivors by filing restraining orders and navigating the family-court system, work with veterans and families to obtain public benefits, represent victims of consumer scams, and provide a variety of other services. Their assistance can range from educational programs to direct legal representation in state, federal, and tribal courts.

The LSC’s most recent annual budget amounted to $375 million, a decline from its $420 million peak during Obama’s first term. Bergmark described it as no more than a “rounding error” in the sprawling federal budget. And legal-aid lawyers in rural and low-income areas were skeptical that the cuts would produce real savings, overall; they described civil legal aid as a cost-saving measure for communities in the long run.

“When we're able to help in a domestic-violence situation and get someone safe and protected, that reduces costs to the police officers in the future, to the court system, to hospitals for medical care,” said Gary Housepian, the executive director of Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands. “When we're able to stop a foreclosure, that keeps the property values up in that community. When we're able to keep someone in housing and keep individuals and families from being homeless, that saves expenses to that community too.”

Housepian’s organization covers 48 counties in central Tennessee, including the city of Nashville. But a large share of its work is done in deeply impoverished rural communities, where poverty rates in some counties can reach as high as 25 percent. About 450,000 people in the region are eligible for his organization’s services, Housepian told me, while he only has 32 lawyers on staff to help them.

Legal-aid lawyers who work for federally funded organizations avoided speaking directly with me about the Trump administration’s budget proposal, citing federal rules that bar their organizations from lobbying either for or against legislation. Instead, they described the services they currently provide, the challenges they face, and their role in the community.

Trump’s proposal isn’t the first time the Legal Services Corporation has faced an existential threat. Ronald Reagan, an avowed opponent of legal-aid services, saw his bid to abolish the program in 1981 thwarted by a bipartisan coalition of Democratic and Republican legislators. He eventually relented in exchange for new restrictions on what kinds of services it could provide, including bars on class-action lawsuits and providing help to undocumented immigrants. Another attempt to gut its funding in the mid-1990s by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich after Republicans retook both houses of Congress failed, but the program’s funding has remained roughly flat since then.

Anna-Marie Johnson, the executive director of Nevada Legal Services, said her organization receives about 52 percent of its budget from federal funding. The state’s size and geography pose their own challenges. Most Nevadans reside in the two urban centers of Reno and Las Vegas, where a few other organizations can pick up some—but not all—of the slack. But those living in Nevada’s vast rural interior often rely exclusively on NLS for legal aid.

“It may be different in other states, but the largest portion of the population out in the rural areas of Nevada are seniors,” Johnson said. Older Americans often face a broader range of legal issues than their younger counterparts, and Nevadans are no exception. “There are a lot of housing issues, and there's a lot of need for end-of-life planning like estate planning, wills, guardianships, and other things like that,” she added.

Other services NLS provides include helping domestic-violence survivors—Nevada ranks among the worst states for abuse—and fighting evictions and foreclosures in a state still recovering from the housing crisis. The organization also runs an Indian law project to serve the 23 tribal reservations throughout the state. Overall, Johnson said, NLS directly represents about 8,000 low-income Nevadans a year; another 80,000 attend clinics and classes that educate them about steps they can take on their own.

Nevada isn’t the only state where rural communities would face a vacuum of legal-aid services without federally funded organizations. Tom Weeks, the executive director of the Ohio State Legal Services Association, which covers central and southeastern Ohio, noted that there was a sharp divide between the programs available in Columbus and those in the rural counties bordering Appalachia.

“In the cities, you're more likely to have some other organizations, for example, that are doing domestic-violence protection work,” Weeks told me, “In southeastern Ohio, we're basically pretty much the only lawyers who are representing poor people in domestic-violence and other family cases.”

Another problem Weeks described in his region was a “flood” of Ohioans in recent years who attempted to represent themselves in court, which his office was trying to reduce. “Not only is that bad for them, it's also really hard on the courts. It just slows things down and really makes it much more difficult for our justice system to do its job,” he said.

Budget cuts affect the width and breadth of the services legal-aid organizations can provide, multiple legal-aid lawyers said. A smaller corps of lawyers, for example, means the staff must both spend less time with each client and help fewer potential clients overall. Accordingly, the loss of federal funding could mean the difference between representing a client in court and giving them advice before they represent themselves.

To close those gaps, legal-aid organizations often supplement their ranks by working alongside private law firms looking for pro bono work. And the threat of disrupting those efforts has already drawn criticism from private lawyers around the country: Partners from more than 150 major law firms signed a letter earlier this month urging Michael Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, not to defund the LSC.

“Eliminating the Legal Services Corporation will not only imperil the ability of civil legal aid organizations to serve Americans in need, it will also vastly diminish the private bar’s capacity to help these individuals,” the letter read. “The pro bono activity facilitated by LSC funding is exactly the kind of public-private partnership the government should encourage, not eliminate.”

In addition to his lawyers on staff, Housepian said he coordinates more than 800 private lawyers to provide services for those 48 counties in central Tennessee. He added that he’d toured every single one of the counties under his purview in February, and told me at length about meeting with judges, lawyers, and low-income Tennesseans about legal aid’s place in the “fabric and tapestry” of their towns.

“We're confident that people know the value of our services,” he told me. “And certainly the hardest part when traveling around was, you want do more in these communities.”