Press Release

Gillibrand Urges Greater Investment in Legal Aid for Low Income Families

May 14, 2009

Washington, D.C. – In an effort to advance equality in the justice system, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand today announced she is joining Senator Edward M. Kennedy to strengthen legal aid for low-income families. In a letter to the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Committee sent Tuesday, Senator Gillibrand called for $435 million for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) to provide more legal representation for New York’s low-income families.

“As a former attorney, I know how important it is for all New Yorkers to get the legal representation they deserve,” Senator Gillibrand said.  “But too many New York families are getting left behind when it’s their day in court. We need to give the LSC the resources it needs to handle more cases, provide representation for more of New York’s low-income families and move toward better equality in our justice system.”

The LSC is a private, nonprofit corporation that provides legal representation to low-income Americans in civil matters relating mainly to family, housing, income, consumer and finance cases. People living below 125 percent of the poverty level are eligible to for aid from the LSC.

LSC grantees closed nearly 1 million cases in 2008. But for every case that’s closed, at least one is never opened. 51 million Americans, including 18 million children, qualify for federally funded legal assistance. But due to a lack of funding, half of those eligible are denied representation – creating a justice gap in our legal system that’s growing each year as more and more low-income Americans seek help from the LSC.

Without investment in the LSC, more low-income New York families will go to court without the representation they need and deserve. That’s why Senator Gillibrand is calling for full funding of the LSC – arming it with the resources it needs to handle more cases, provide representation for more New York families and make progress toward a justice system that works for all Americans, regardless of income.

Full text of the letter below:

The Honorable Barbara Mikulski                  The Honorable  Richard Shelby
Chairwoman, Subcommittee on                  Ranking Member, Subcommittee on
Commerce Justice and Science                  Commerce Justice and Science               
Committee on Appropriations                     Committee on Appropriations
United States Senate                               United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510                           Washington, D.C. 20510

Dear Chairwoman Mikulski and Senator Shelby:

We write in support of an increase in Legal Services Corporation funding to at least $435 million in the Fiscal Year 2010 Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act.  

Thanks to your efforts and strong bipartisan support, the Omnibus Appropriations Act provided the Corporation with $390 million for FY 2009, a much-needed increase over the FY 2008 level of $350.5 million.  Yet this is still far less than the amount appropriated in FY 1995, which would be about $578 million in today’s dollars, and even farther below the amount appropriated in FY 1981–$749 million in today’s dollars.  

Therefore, we are requesting the Subcommittee provide a further increase of at least $45 million as the next step toward closing the “justice gap” and meeting the greater need that exists today because of the economic crisis, which has increased the number of foreclosures, the numbers of the unemployed, and the number of individuals and families who now qualify for federally funded legal aid.  We understand that the President will also request $435 million for FY 2010, and the bipartisan Board of the Corporation has recommended $485.1 million. 

Today, 51 million Americans, including 18 million children, qualify for federally funded legal assistance.  The 2005 “Justice Gap” study reported that one in every two individuals who qualified for and sought assistance from LSC-funded programs was denied assistance because of lack of resources.  Since 2006, one million more Americans now qualify for legal aid.  The justice gap has clearly grown and is likely to continue to grow as our country struggles to emerge from the serious recession. Other major sources of funding for legal aid, including state appropriations, private giving and Interest on Lawyer Trust Account revenues are declining or are under severe stress.  Each year, tens of thousands of low-income individuals and families are denied access to justice because of the shortfall in these funds.

The Corporation’s grantees focus on providing basic legal services, in accord with the intent of Congress that these federal funds should be used to resolve day-to-day legal problems of individual low-income clients. The Corporation currently funds 137 local programs serving every state, county, and Congressional District in the United States and its territories. These local programs provide direct services to approximately one million constituents struggling to get by on incomes below or near the poverty line.  Beneficiaries include men, women and children, survivors of local and national disasters, the working poor, veterans, family farmers, and persons with disabilities. Their legal problems involve family relationships (including domestic violence and child custody), housing, health care, employment, and other basic needs.  Our failure to resolve these issues causes even greater hardship for these persons.   

Without continued increases in federal funding, many more of our most vulnerable citizens will be denied assistance in the future.  We urge you, therefore, to fund the Legal Services Corporation at no less than $435 million for the coming fiscal year to help meet this critical need.

Thank you for your consideration of our request.