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Md. Legal Aid: Elimination of Legal Services Corp. would be ‘catastrophic’

The state program gets $4 million a year from the Legal Services Corp.

Maryland Legal Aid’s Willhelm S. Joseph called MVLS’ decision to charge clients an application fee ‘unfortunate.’ ‘Those who are least equipped to pay are getting charged,’ he added.

Maryland Legal Aid’s Willhelm H. Joseph Jr. (File photo)

The proposed elimination of the federal Legal Services Corp. under the President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget would have “catastrophic” effects on Maryland Legal Aid, the state organization’s leader said Thursday.

Maryland Legal Aid receives more than $4 million annually – 15 percent of its budget –  from LSC to provide services to low-income Marylanders in need of assistance, according to Executive Director Wilhelm H. Joseph Jr.

“In spite of modestly successful, state-based efforts to leverage the LSC funding and attract additional support for our work, the sudden loss of LSC funding would be catastrophic, disruptive and disheartening for both the thousands of vulnerable people who need our services and the state’s overall system for the administration of justice which relies on our participation,” Joseph said.

The loss of LSC funding cannot be filled by Maryland Legal Services Corp., said Susan M. Erlichman, executive director of the state’s funding organization for civil legal assistance. Maryland Legal Aid already is the organization’s largest grantee.

The proposed cuts “would do significant damage to the legal services safety net to our state,” she said. “It would be very difficult to make that money up elsewhere.”

Maryland Legal Aid has been getting funding from the Legal Services Corporation since the federal agency was created 1974 and has based its structure off of that money. The state agency currently has 12 local offices and five court-based self-help centers, Joseph said.

The Legal Services Corp. is one of 19 federal agencies on the chopping block in Trump’s budget.

American Bar Association President Linda Klein condemned the proposed cut and called on Congress to restore that funding.

“LSC provides civil legal aid to people who desperately need help to navigate the legal process,” Klein said in a statement. “Without this assistance, courthouse doors will slam in the faces of millions of Americans, denying them equal access to justice.”

Legal Services Corp. has offices in every congressional district in the country and helps nearly 2 million people a year by securing housing for veterans, protecting seniors from scams, providing legal help in rural areas and helping domestic abuse victims and disaster survivors, Klein said.

She pointed to more than 30 cost-benefit studies that show legal aid offers more benefits than costs. The costs to society are greater if veterans are homeless and disaster victims can’t rebuild, Klein said.

“As the budget process proceeds, the ABA will be working to ensure that Congress provides adequate funding for LSC. It is cost-effective, beneficial to millions of Americans and the right thing to do for our country,” she said.

The agency requested $502 million for fiscal year 2017 and received $385 million in appropriations for fiscal year 2016, according to the ABA.

Leaders from 150 law firms across the country with offices in all 50 states sent a letter to the Office of Management and Budget last week to request that LSC remain fully funded and highlight its importance.

“Our firms have been doing our part, through our robust pro bono commitments, to ensure access to justice for low-income Americans,” the letter states in part. “We need the federal government to continue to do its part, by funding LSC, so that we can continue to provide this help.”


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