An op-ed by John Levi, chair of the Board of Directors of the national Legal Services Corporation, is highlighted in today’s edition of Raleigh’s News & Observer. In it, Levi makes plain just how dire the situation has become for the nation’s legal aid community as it struggles to cope with the combination of funding cuts and the crushing demand that has resulted from the country’s rising poverty.
As he notes:
“The circumstances in North Carolina mirror the national trend. More than 21 percent of North Carolinians now qualify for help from Legal Aid of North Carolina, but LANC is facing a 14 percent drop in funding from all sources this year.
Last fall, budget cuts forced LANC to shutter three field offices in largely rural areas and eliminate nearly 30 staff positions, impacting services in 11 counties. The budget crunch has also forced LANC to impose a salary and hiring freeze since 2008 and to narrow the kinds of cases it will accept.”
In other words, while more than one-in-five North Carolinians qualify for the services of Legal Aid of North Carolina, the notion that the small handful of offices and lawyers the organization employs could actually serve the legal needs of more than a million and a half people is absurd. Moreover, the notion that volunteer lawyers with no expertise in the areas that affect poor people could somehow make up the gap is about as realistic as saying that our nation’s health care needs can be taken care of by volunteer physicians.
The bottom line: Unless Legal Aid gets a lot more funding, the notion that all Americans enjoy equal access to the justice system will remain what it is: a bad joke.