Ensuring justice for all is a core governmental responsibility that must be funded regardless of the state's budget situation, argues John McKay, former U.S. attorney in Seattle and now a Seattle University law professor. The Washington state Senate is considering a budget proposal that would cut legal-aid funding, putting many Washington residents at risk.
WHEN Julianne found out her home was in foreclosure, she was overwrought. She knew her family was living close to the bone, but never thought it could come to this.
Not knowing the law and lacking the resources to pay for an attorney, Julianne’s only hope was a local legal-aid program. The legal-aid attorney representing Julianne, which is not her real name, showed the court that the bank had failed to give her the time required by law to avoid foreclosure. With her attorney’s help, Julianne negotiated an agreement that allowed the family to keep their home and pay off the balance owed.
If this family had not had access to legal aid, they would have lost their home. Julianne and her children would have turned to the social-safety net to survive: shelters, food banks, the emergency room, public assistance and perhaps even the foster-care system. The neighborhood’s property values would have sunk because of another abandoned house, and the bank would not have recovered the mortgage.
Julianne’s predicament is increasingly common. The national financial meltdown has decimated our state’s economy, leaving thousands of our friends, family members and neighbors unemployed, pushing many into poverty. We all know of someone who has lost their job or their home; we all know of people who are having a hard time getting the unemployment and health benefits to which they are entitled under law. These are civil legal problems that can devastate already vulnerable families and exacerbate our state’s economic slump.
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Timely legal help can reduce homelessness, unemployment and domestic violence. But even before the current economic crisis, Washington’s legal-aid system was only able to help about one of every five low-income households when facing legal problems with severe consequences. Despite legal aid’s ability to save tax dollars and protect families, funding is threatened on two fronts.
Revenues generated by the Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts (IOLTA), a key source of civil legal-aid funding, plunged by 50 percent in 2008. With interest rates at all-time lows and a deepening recession likely to keep them at that level, IOLTA revenue continues to sink. More than 20 legal-aid programs across the state depend on these funds to keep their doors open; grants were reduced this year and deeper cuts are anticipated for 2010.
At the same time, state support for legal aid is in jeopardy. State cuts to legal-aid funding would be largely shouldered by the Northwest Justice Project (NJP), the organization that serves as the hub of Washington’s legal-aid system. NJP’s attorneys work with and support other legal-aid providers and thousands of volunteer attorneys to protect the legal rights of low-income people. In 2008, NJP and its partners helped more than 50,000 people like Julianne — families who have nowhere else to turn.
The state House budget recognizes the crisis confronting Washington’s low-income households and maintains current funding levels for legal aid. However, the Senate’s budget proposes a $4.7 million reduction (or 20 percent) of current funding levels for legal aid. A cut of this magnitude would require dismantling the state-funded legal aid system, leaving more than 20,000 families without help for their most critical legal needs.
Unprecedented budget challenges and competing priorities present our state legislators with difficult choices. But ensuring justice for all is a core governmental responsibility that must be funded regardless of the state’s budget situation. Moreover, by helping thousands of households sustain steady employment, housing and benefits, legal aid saves tax dollars and stabilizes the economy.
Washington cannot afford to reduce support for legal aid. The Legislature must maintain its current funding level for legal aid in the 2009-2011 budget.
John McKay teaches constitutional law at Seattle University and is the former president of the federally funded Legal Services Corporation. He served as the United States attorney in Seattle from 2001 until his forced resignation in 2007.