Don't cut legal aid to the poor

A letter from the president of the Maryland State Bar Association to the Baltimore Sun:

An elderly mother faced foreclosure, an all too common problem for many. What was uncommon about this particular case was that the state of this mother’s financial affairs was not her own doing. The woman’s daughter refinanced her mortgage several times, forging signatures and pocketing thousands of dollars. Foreclosure proceedings were filed, and with notary acknowledgment of each signature, this unsuspecting mother came very near to losing her home.

This very scenario played out in Maryland. With legal help, the dispute was settled and the mortgage company paid the equity of the home at the time of the first refinancing. To navigate complex legal channels, the mother turned to the Legal Aid Bureau Inc. Legal Aid Bureau provides free legal services to Maryland’s most vulnerable residents including seniors, veterans, and the disabled.

Legal Aid Bureau is part of a network of providers funded in part by the Legal Services Corporation (LSC). With LSC funding, the Legal Aid Bureau helped 58,000 of our impoverished neighbors, co-workers, and friends at no cost. Most cases were family law cases, but LSC funding goes toward other important groups, such as seniors who are illegally discharged from nursing homes and disaster victims recovering from tragedy.

In fact, LSC helps to meet the needs of 63 million qualifying Americans, including 22 million children, who live at or just above the poverty line. LSC funds providers in every state through competitive grants that helped close nearly one million cases benefiting 2.3 million people last year. While that number is impressive, research has shown (and legal aid advocates will tell you) that about half of applicants are turned away for lack of funding. Pro bono representation can help many, but the need is simply overwhelming.

When so many in Maryland and around our nation still out of work and without the resources to pay for unanticipated expenses, it is critically important that we keep clear the pathway to our court system. Hurdles before the courtroom can become insurmountable barriers for the poor and for those who were formerly considered to be the middle class. Despite all the help that LSC provides to legal aid groups like the Legal Aid Bureau, the organization’s funding is in danger. Congress is considering ways to cut the budget — a reasonable idea — but LSC should not face the budget ax. Imagine if those 58,000 Legal Aid Bureau clients were left without any kind of help.

Access to justice is more than just a slogan. There are very real consequences for an evicted family that cannot find remedy in the courtroom, or for a veteran denied benefits because no one could help with legal forms. Access to justice is one of our nation’s foundational promises, and LSC strives to make that promise a reality. Washington should cut wasteful government spending but protect programs like the LSC that give 58,000 of our neighbors their day in court every year.

Henry E. Dugan, Jr., Baltimore
The writer is president of the Maryland State Bar Association.