Journalism in the Public Interest

Legal Services for Poor Face Growing Need and Less Funding


Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Providers of civil legal services to the poor are having to furlough their staff, triage their clients, and turn away more people in need as a result of the congressional budget compromise reached last month. Legal services may include defending low-income individuals dealing with predatory lending, domestic violence, landlord-tenant disputes or foreclosure. As we've noted, legal experts have particularly urged to Congress to adequately fund legal services in order to alleviate the crisis of flawed foreclosures.

But far from seeing any budget increases, the umbrella nonprofit group Legal Services Corporation had its funding cut by $15.8 million—about 4 percent of its most recent budget—as a result of last month's budget compromise. It was spared a $75 million cut first proposed by House Republicans. 

The modest reduction isn't the only reason that the 136 legal aid programs across the country funded through LSC are in a tight spot. In addition to less funding from the federal government, they have limited support from cash-strapped states, dwindling revenue from trust accounts and a growing population of people eligible and in need of their help.

“You do reach a point where you can no longer absorb” the cuts, Edwina Frances Martin, a spokeswoman for Legal Services NYC, told me. Martin said her organization gets about 14 percent of its budget from Legal Services Corporation and lost about $720,000 in the final federal budget. It’s planning cutbacks large and small—cutting the budget for food at trainings, leaving some empty positions unfilled and implementing furloughs in some field offices.

Elsewhere in the country, Idaho Legal Aid Services is starting to shutter its offices several days every month, the Associated Press reported. The organization lost about 60 percent of its funding in the final federal budget.

In Virginia, chapters of the Virginia Legal Aid Society are starting to lay off attorneys.

In Maine, Pine Tree Legal Assistance—the group whose volunteer attorney Thomas Cox deposed a GMAC employee last year and set off a nationwide furor over flawed foreclosure practices at the nation’s biggest banks—estimates that the cuts will affect its ability to serve about 125 families this year.

In New Jersey, the group that coordinates civil legal services across the state said that programs are providing less full representation for clients and instead are opting to offer more limited help—such as legal advice—to more people. (Read the Legal Services of New Jersey’s report from last month.)

The reasons for this are manifold. Like other states, New Jersey has lost some federal funding through Legal Services Corporation, but that’s only its third-biggest revenue stream. Its biggest dilemma is a drop in revenue from lawyers’ trust accounts, which collect interest on payouts to clients and donate that interest to legal aid. That revenue has dropped from $40 million to $8 million annually, Legal Services of New Jersey said.

In New York, another stream of funding is also being lost. On top of its federal cut on general funding, Legal Services NYC is no longer going to be getting federal stimulus dollars specifically allocated by the state for foreclosure prevention, as the New York Times reported on Friday. As we reported last week, the organization’s foreclosure prevention efforts helped two homeowners in the Bronx discover and contest clauses hidden in the fine print of their mortgage modification agreements that would limit their ability to sue or fight foreclosure.

At least in New York, legal services providers do have friends in high places. The state’s chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, has for months crusaded for more state dollars to go to civil legal services and has pledged to make it happen.

“As chief judge, I see this as one of the great challenges facing our justice system today,” Lippman said in comments last week. “No issue is more fundamental to our constitutional mandate of providing equal justice under the law than ensuring adequate legal representation.”

Related: Read our report on how the budget slashed housing counseling funds as well.

J. Christy Wareham

May 16, 2011, 4:33 p.m.

Makes me wonder if people who only care about slashing taxes that make government (including courts) work ever think about the cost of their ideology. How much will incarceration expenditures skyrocket when all the innocent poor people go to prison because the prosecution had no meaningful adversary?

J. Christy Wareham

May 16, 2011, 4:39 p.m.

Er, I shouldn’t have assumed this involved criminal matters, too. (My bad.) All the same, just as the uninsured poor cost the rest of us money due to being forced into emergency rooms as their only resort, there will be will be costly distortions resulting from unjust results in courts that will ripple their way to the pocketbooks of everyone.


Ms. Wang: This is two parts truth and ten parts rubbish.  Big surprise: the solution to every problem is not to throw money at it.

I have been in these trenches for decades as an attorney and advocate in the private sector as a pro bono public servant and even as a disabled person who has been forced to resort to so-called ‘legal aid’ and I can tell you that you are clueless.

The vast majority of ‘public interest’ advocates I have know are lazy 9 - 5 dunderheads who could never work hard enough toe keep a real job in the private sector.  For the most part they seek ‘public interest’ work as the easy way out.  I can not tell you how many poor people I have bailed-put of trouble that ‘legal aid’ type lawyers have dug them into. It is not at all uncommon for such advocates (for lack of a better term) often leave people far worse off than they find then. The laziness, the lack of competence, the downright malpractice, would shock you. Half these people BELONG in the unemployment lines. I, and other attorney/advocate colleagues frequently dig out the poor people who these agencies have buried.

Increase funding?  Give me a break. They deserve to loose finding. When they can operate at the same level of professional integrity as private practice lawyers, demonstrate the same work-ethic,  and show RESULTS, RESULTS, RESULTS they can ask for more funding.

Let me give you just three examples:

First, public housing authorities have, for a long time, been violating federal HUD laws to mulct the utility allowances to increase a family’s rent-share and thereby reduce the entitlements of the poor and siphon off (that’s conversion) that money to other purpose. HUD has full knowledge of this. No public advocate has been willing to take on that very real battle for thousands of bilked poor..

Second, the most adversely effected are those impoverished by HIV/AIDS but fortunate to have HOPWA housing subsidies (now defunct).  Contractors (such as Catholic Charities) are paid hundreds of thousands of ‘faith-based’ dollars earmarked exclusively for ‘advocacy services’ and yet, with full knowledge those people poor and disabled people have been systematically defrauded or years, these so-called advocates have done nothing - except, of course, raid the U.S. Treasury and exhaust Ryan White HOPWA funds to pay the salaries and benefits of incompetent and lazy advocates. 

Third, huge amounts Ryan White Care (dental) dollars have been milked out of the U.S. Treasury and handed to contractor clinics that blatantly misrepresented the facts stated in their contracts and simply taken the money,. One o the largest even closed their clinics (before the contract’s ink was dry!), AND dumped the patients. Others have, in fact, falsely billed the government for work not done.

Who commits 90% of the welfare fraud in America? Certainly not the intended beneficiaries of congressional largesse.

I’ll stop there. But suffice to say every government agency is in actual notice of these ongoing frauds against the poor but have done nothing about it. Why? Because the very advocates paid huge sums of tax dollars to be the watch dogs have miserably failed their purpose. 

The sad part is that each one of those examples of ‘false claims’ against the U.S. Treasury carries with it ‘private attorney general exceptions’  that allow any prevailing lawyer to collect attorney’s fees, PLUS treble damages, PLUS costs. No need to exhaust tax dollars when far more can be recovered and far more people helped by REAL lawyers willing to to REAL work.  When they are willing to to the REAL work and win REAL victories, to help thousands of REAL people who suffer REAL damages, to make a REAL difference and replenish their own coffers then they might deserve increased government funding.

This, sad to say, is all a feast for the Tea Party.

In closing, there is a REAL story here for professional journalists willing to dig in and do REAL WORK. And there is a very real opportunity for journalists to make a difference in the lives of those this article complains are being abandoned. Like the advocates who have failed to justify their funding you too have taken the easy way out.


Your examples make no sense.  How on earth is it the fault of legal aid lawyers that the problems you mention continue to persist when, as you point out, fee-generating lawyers can collect fees for prevailing on these cases?  Why haven’t private practice lawyers like yourself solved the massive problems of the poor?  As you said, treble damages plus costs are available.

FYI, legal aid programs are actually prohibited from taking on fee-generating cases of this kind unless no fee-generating lawyers will accept them after referrals are attempted, so as to not deprive private practitioners like yourself of business and to preserve tax dollars. 

Perhaps there are programs out there that deserve to be cut, but Ms. Wang’s article contains numerous illustrations of advocates who have proven they deliver effective direct and systemic advocacy, and whose funding is being cut.  Your response, by contrast, references only your personal vendettas to argue for the elimination of funding for these programs.  Your broad brush criticisms of legal aid and of this article are misguided.


I doubt your rebuttal applies in every jurisdiction state and federal but it’s patently false in many contexts. When a city human rights commission brings a case against a business the fact that the victim has a private right of action will not prevent the administrative proceeding. Likewise, that a group of tenants may have a legal claim against a housing authority for violation of HUD laws, such private right of action (and fee shifting statutes) do NOT prevent the legal aid agency from taking the case to court. So that’s nonsense.

In any event “vendetta”? My, my, how the hyperbole doth fly! You beg the questions - which are actually the essence of my complaint. 

First, “misguided”? I have over three decades of personal and professional experience with legal aid agencies and other advocacy groups that suck up and waste tax dollars. I assure you it is not I who have or should engage in ‘vendetta’ against lazy incompetents but the victims of their malpractice and the many noble pro bono lawyers who clean up somebody else’s mess - presuming they can be found.

Second, I speak of particularities (as a professional should) but you speak in generalities as a propagandist would.

Your claims of other’s effectiveness is mere self-serving hearsay. Such agencies know how to play the funding game and the system by lying with statistics. For funding purposes saying that one has ‘effectively served’ X# of people’ is quite different than saying we have ‘recovered Y dollars’ or ‘prevailed in Z # of cases’.  At the advocacy groups *I know of* they actually count answering the phone and returning a call as ‘serving service’ to client - even if they never actually DO a thing.

Third, telling one side of a story is not objective and it’s *certainly not* journalism but mere propaganda.

I have absolutely no doubt that many a proverbial baby is tossed out with the infamous wash. THAT is what should make us angry. When lazy and incompetent ‘advocates’ go for 9-5 jobs in ‘public interest’ it too often is not because they have a passion for ‘zealous advocacy’ or even an authentic desire to serve others but because they could never hack it in the far more arduous and competitive private sector.  When I see what I see on a regular basis, year after year and decade after decade, it is an outrage because it is lazy incompetents like that who cause funding to be cut to those who deserve it. They provide the food for a Tea Party feast.

Finally if you think my comments are misguided you are totally out of touch with the reality.

Cuts in funding are, sad to say, all too well deserved. Instead of crying victim clean up your own act and demand higher standard from the peers who cause you to loose finding. In other words, clean your own house public interest workers. Cut loose the lazy and incompetent fat and perhaps those who REALLY do their job won’t be standing in the unemployment lines with the nincompoops who helped put you there.


Legal Services Corporation regulations prohibit legal aid from pursuing fee-generating cases.  These are federal regulations, so yes, they apply in every context across the nation. 

You seem to have read a different article than I did. This isn’t an article about how some agencies have been identified as ineffective and are being slashed.  I might cheer that development as much as you would.  Instead, this an article about how funding for legal services for the poor are being cut across the board because the legal needs of the poor are simply not a policy priority in the era of budgetary “shared sacrifice”—sacrifice that is focused mostly on safety net spending for the poor, working, and middle classes. 

Again, I have no doubt that there are non-profit agencies who are less competitive and whose funding should go to more effective agencies that attract and retain talent.  But if you agree that the legal needs of the poor are largely unmet and that funds are being allocated to those who don’t deserve them, then what you should advocate for is change and rigor in how funds are allocated.  Across-the-board cuts do not help you grind your axe.  They make the problem you describe worse.

Reputable agencies succeed not just because they have smart people with the right priorities, but also because they have adequate resources for training, supervision, technology, talent retention, and yes, manpower, to prevent burnout and excessive caseloads that multiply malpractice risk.  Cutting their funding will convert the high-caliber agencies into the ineffective flab you despise.  This is counterproductive to your stated goals.  So I say it again: your cheering of these developments is misguided.

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