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    A federal budget proposal to defund the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), a major funding source for two longstanding legal aid organizations in Wisconsin, would hurt low-income veterans, domestic abuse victims, and other Wisconsin residents.

    Joe Forward

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    Fran Deisinger Legal Aid Defender card

    State Bar of Wisconsin President Fran Deisinger shares his Legal Aid Defender card calling on Congress to continue funding the Legal Services Corporation. The cards are part of the ABA’s campaign to support legal aid programs and will be hand-delivered to Congressional representatives in Washington, D.C.

    Register now to create your Legal Aid defender card.

    April 5, 2017 – Two longstanding legal aid organizations that annually serve almost 10,000 low-income residents in Wisconsin could face deep financial cuts if a federal budget proposal to eliminate the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) is adopted.

    LSC, created by Congress in 1974, is the single largest funder of civil legal aid in the U.S. LSC funding allows organizations to provide free legal services to low-income individuals and families. In the U.S., LSC funding helps about 2 million people per year.

    In Wisconsin, LSC funding helps about 9,400 people per year through grants to two organizations: Legal Action of Wisconsin and Wisconsin Judicare, which together received more than $5 million in LSC funding to support their operations in 2016.

    Legal Action of Wisconsin, which serves 39 southern Wisconsin counties through six offices and 55 attorneys, relies on LSC for more than 40 percent of its funding. Legal Action also maintains a robust volunteer program that coordinates pro bono activity.

    Without this funding … we would likely have to close our doors.

    Wisconsin Judicare, which serves 33 northern counties and Wisconsin’s 11 federally recognized Indian tribes, receives more than half of its funding from LSC. Judicare employs 12 staff attorneys through its Wausau office. It also pays private bar attorneys to represent low-income clients and coordinates pro bono volunteers.

    “LSC funding supports the main operations of our work, provides matching funds for various other grants, allows staff to conduct outreach and educational sessions, and provides direct funds to ensure families have access to justice,” said Judicare Executive Director Kimberly Haas. “Without this funding, we would be unable to use our remaining grant resources to sustain the work we do. We would likely have to close our doors.”

    Protecting Vulnerable Citizens, Including Veterans and Domestic Abuse Victims

    According to advocates, far fewer poor individuals and families would have the legal help to escape abusive relationships or extricate themselves from the cycle of poverty if federal LSC funding for legal aid organizations in Wisconsin no longer exists.

    Joe Forwardorg jforward wisbar Joe Forward, Saint Louis Univ. School of Law 2010, is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by org jforward wisbar email or by phone at (608) 250-6161.

    “Low-income people don’t have access to a lot of resources to begin with,” said Kari Lerch, deputy director of the Public Policy Institute at Community Advocates in Milwaukee. “The more we take away from entities like Legal Action that are specifically designed to help them, the more we put and keep those people in vulnerable positions.”

    That includes military veterans and domestic abuse victims.

    Patti Seger, executive director at End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin, a statewide coalition that works to end domestic abuse, says legal aid is a critical aspect of helping domestic abuse victims escape the violence while preserving child custody and other rights.

    “For someone who is trying to get away, they may endanger themselves or their children if they don’t have legal assistance,” Seger said.

    “Or, they may choose to stay in the relationship longer because they have no resources to get out, particularly if they have children in common. They don’t want to lose access to their kids, and they want to be there to be the protective parent,” she said.

    End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin opposes any budget proposal to eliminate LSC funding, noting the organization often refers people for legal aid.

    For someone who is trying to get away, they may endanger themselves or their children if they don’t have legal assistance.

    “Victims of domestic violence that go into a divorce or child custody proceeding without an attorney are at a very serious risk of losing custody of their children, which may endanger the children more,” Seger said. “We’ve heard from a lot of victims who lose custody of their kids in situations where they try to deal with it on their own.”

    In those situations, Seger says, many of the victims say they would have stayed in the relationship had they known they would lose custody of their children. “That’s a choice they should not have to make,” Seger said. “Legal Action of Wisconsin and Wisconsin Judicare have been key partners in helping these types of victims for many years.”

    Anthony Moore, a law student and administrator at U.W. Law School’s Veterans Law Center, says a loss of LSC funding would hurt the veterans they serve in two ways.

    Join the Fight: Become a Legal Aid Defender

    Michelle Behnke Legal Aid Defender card

    The State Bar of Wisconsin urges members to join the ABA’s campaign to support legal aid programs, including support for continued LSC funding. Those who register to become a “Legal Aid Defender” can enter a short message for their representatives in Congress. Your Legal Aid Defender card will be hand-delivered to your Congressional representatives in Washington, D.C., by a State Bar of Wisconsin representative.

    Register now to create your Legal Aid defender card.

    First, Legal Action of Wisconsin is a primary referral source for those who visit or call the Veterans Law Center, which provides brief legal advice, information, and referrals to about 20-30 veterans per month. Veterans living in more northern counties may be referred to Wisconsin Judicare, Moore said, because of geographical location.

    “If those organizations can’t offer civil legal services to the veterans we normally send to them, it would greatly impact our options,” said Moore. “They can give advice on things our attorneys may not be experts on, even if a veteran doesn’t need representation.”

    Second, Legal Action of Wisconsin prepares materials that Veterans Law Center law students and volunteer lawyers may rely on to provide generalized legal advice.

    If those organizations can’t offer civil legal services to the veterans we normally send to them, it would greatly impact our options.

    “For instance, a lot of our attorneys are not family law attorneys, but Legal Action prepared the book on family law that we can reference when providing basic advice,” Moore said. “We have 7 or 8 different practice guides that we keep at each clinic.”

    Legal Action of Wisconsin updates those practice guides. Thus, any elimination of LSC funding could limit or prevent Legal Action from preparing such materials for use by organizations like the Veterans Law Center, which directly help low-income veterans.

    Maudwella Kirkendoll, the Director of the Basic Needs Division at Community Advocates, echoes Moore’s concerns with respect to his work on housing issues. Community Advocates provides tenant-landlord information and other resources.

    “There are tons of evictions filed every year,” said Kirkendoll, also the organization’s chief operating officer. “In the majority, tenants do not have representation and landlords do. With a loss of funding, I would foresee more people evicted and potentially homeless. We try to find housing alternatives, but the alternative could be shelters.”

    Kari Lerch

    “The more we take away from entities like Legal Action that are specifically designed to help [low-income people], the more we put and keep those people in vulnerable positions.” – Kari Lerch, deputy director of the Public Policy Institute at Community Advocates in Milwaukee.

    LSC a Primary Funding Source

    Legal Action of Wisconsin and Wisconsin Judicare are two of 134 organizations nationwide that are bracing for potential elimination of funding from LSC, and the State Bar of Wisconsin has joined grassroots efforts to prevent this from happening.

    President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2018 proposes to defund numerous independent agencies, including LSC, which Congress created in 1974 to “promote equal access to justice in our nation and to provide high-quality legal assistance to low-income persons.” LSC has done so for more than four decades.

    LSC’s two grantees in Wisconsin helped more than 9,400 low-income individuals last year on matters involving safety, subsistence, and family stability.

    Many cases involve family law issues, including divorce, custody, separation, or protections from domestic abuse. Others involve elder abuse, evictions, foreclosures, government benefits, and consumer protection or health-related issues.

    In 2016, Congress funded LSC at $385 million. More than $5 million of that landed in Wisconsin, where Judicare and Legal Action used it to serve the civil legal needs of the state’s poorest people – those living below 125 percent of the federal poverty level.

    About 60 million Americans, including 1 million people in Wisconsin (17 percent of the population) are financially eligible to receive free legal services through LSC-funded offices. Eligible individuals include persons with income of less than $14,850 per year. 

    Because of inadequate resources, though, many low-income individuals do not receive legal services. Prior reports noted that LSC grantees were able to assist only half of eligible persons who sought free legal assistance, and the number of Americans eligible for such services has increased 17 percent since 2007.

    LSC Funding: Important Statistics

    • 1/10,000th: Funding for the Legal Services Corporation only accounts for 1/10,000th of the total federal budget.

    • 1.9 million: Every year, LSC provides legal aid for 1.9 million individuals and their families.
      LSC grantees provide civil legal aid for the poor, addressing matters involving safety, subsistence, and family stability.

    • 44,569: In 2015, LSC grantees served households with veterans in 44,569 cases.

    • Most legal aid practices are focused on family law, including domestic violence, child support, and custody, and housing matters, including evictions and foreclosures.

    • 115,000: Over 115,000 cases closed by LSC grantees in 2015 involved domestic violence.

    • 1/3rd: Nearly one-third of all cases closed by LSC grantees are family law cases. LSC grantees help parents obtain and keep custody of their children, assist family members in securing guardianship of orphaned and abused children, and help victims of domestic violence secure protective orders.

    • 70%: Almost 70 percent of all cases closed by LSC grantees in 2015 involved women.
      Elder clients often require legal assistance because of special health, income, and social needs, such as accessing the government-administered benefits on which many depend for income and health care.

    • 812: LSC grantees operate 812 offices throughout the United States and its territories.

    • By renegotiating mortgages, resolving landlord-tenant disputes, and assisting renters facing wrongful eviction and property foreclosure, LSC grantees help clients stay in their homes.

    Funding Not Enough to Serve Everyone Who is Eligible

    A recent report by Legal Action of Wisconsin indicates that close to 90 percent of low-income persons in its service area encounter a potential legal problem at some point.

    Many of those people call Legal Action with a family law problem. In recent years, at least 4,700 people per year called or visited Legal Action with a family law problem - double the number of requests for other problem types. But because of inadequate resources, Legal Action turned away an average of at least 4,646 people each year.

    For housing issues, the second-most cited legal problem, Legal Action declined an average of at least 2,347 people per year from 2012 to 2015.

    To address the overwhelming need for legal services and inadequate funding levels, LSC had requested almost $503 million for 2017. A continuing resolution left LSC funding at $385 million, minus a 0.019 percent cut impacting other programs equally.

    It’s not just benefits to Republicans or Democrats. It’s to veterans, it’s to low-income families, it’s to women in abusive households.

    Now, for 2018, President Trump has proposed to defund LSC altogether, a proposal that was previously floated (unsuccessfully) by a budget committee for the U.S. House. Proposals to eliminate LSC are not new, but since its creation in 1974, the program has maintained broad bipartisan support in Congress and in the legal community.

    The State Bar of Wisconsin, which has a longstanding policy position to support federal funding of civil legal aid through LSC, has now joined a grassroots effort by the American Bar Association to draw attention to this issue and ensure U.S. lawmakers understand the potential impact of defunding LSC on their most vulnerable constituents.

    In a letter to all members of Congress, 185 leaders of corporate legal departments across the country, including some of the biggest companies in America, urged Congress to preserve LSC funding and increase it to $450 million for 2018, the level of funding that LSC received in 2010, adjusted for inflation.

    Raymond J. Manista, general counsel for Milwaukee-based Northwestern Mutual, signed the letter on behalf of the company, which provided the State Bar of Wisconsin with a statement on its position:

    "The Northwestern Mutual law department has long supported and encouraged lawyers who wish to provide pro bono services to low-income and disadvantaged residents of our local communities. We have also been active in outside organizations that solicit private donations to provide legal services to low-income individuals and families. Our support for the letter submitted to Congress reflects these two commitments."

    The National Law Journal spoke with other signatories, including John Schultz, the executive vice president and general counsel at Hewlett Packard Enterprise.

    “I hope that the administration and Congress understand the benefits that LSC provides. It’s not just benefits to Republicans or Democrats. It’s to veterans, it’s to low-income families, it’s to women in abusive households,” Schultz told the National Law Journal.

    “If for some reason the LSC isn’t protected I think you will see an erosion of those services and I think you’ll see a material impact on a lot of peoples’ lives,” Schultz continued. “And it isn’t just people in the inner city – quite to the contrary. Many of these services are going to rural communities in what you’d consider currently to be red states. This would have a material impact across all political lines.”

    Anthony Moore

    Elimination of LSC funding could limit or prevent Legal Action from preparing materials for use by organizations like the Veterans Law Center, which directly help low-income veterans says Anthony Moore, a law student and administrator at U.W. Law School’s Veterans Law Center.

    LSC Defunding Would Effectively Eliminate Protections

    Legal aid organizations like Wisconsin Judicare and Legal Action play an important role for individuals with civil legal problems that affect basic human needs.

    Wisconsin Judicare offers services in 18 different areas, including veterans and public benefits, housing, health, and consumer protection. It also maintains an Indian Law Office to assist low-income members of the state’s 11 federally recognized Indian tribes.

    Legal Action offers similar services, with legal projects dedicated to military veterans, low-income elders, and eviction defense, among others. The family law group covers a wide range of family law issues, including domestic and child abuse issues.

    LSC funding provides a base that programs like Legal Action and Judicare can leverage to obtain grants and donations from additional public and private sources. It also funds the staff that support their substantial pro bono programs.

    Other Funding Sources Cannot Meet Overwhelming Need

    In “Moving the Needle: Serving Wisconsin’s Low-Income Residents,” State Bar Pro Bono Coordinator Jeff Brown (Wisconsin Lawyer, March 2016) notes that Wisconsin ranks 39th in the number of legal aid lawyers available to serve the poor by state, in part because of state funding levels. Currently, Wisconsin provides little support for legal aid, leading to more pro se litigants and other problems for an underfunded court system.

    State funding for civil legal aid zeroed out in 2011, after appropriations of $1 million (2008), $1.9 million (2009), and $2.5 million (2010). The elimination of state funding caused legal aid programs to significantly contract staffing and services, Brown noted.

    The 2015-17 state budget used $500,000 per year from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families federal block grant to fund civil legal aid to domestic violence and sexual assault victims, and the proposed 2017-19 budget does the same. (This has changed. The Governor's proposed budget for 2017-19 no longer includes these funds. See the editor's note in the comments below).

    Legal aid providers across Wisconsin, including Judicare and Legal Action, rely on other funding sources to serve low-income populations.

    Judicare and Legal Action of Wisconsin depend on LSC funding to serve thousands of low-income Wisconsin residents.

    For instance, the $50 fee that lawyers annually pay to the Wisconsin Trust Account Foundation (WisTAF) generates funds for grants to numerous civil legal aid providers in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Law Foundation, the charitable arm of the State Bar of Wisconsin, also provides grants to legal aid organizations across the state.

    “While Wisconsin does well on some aspects of funding for civil legal aid … it is the inconsistent and relatively low state funding that drives Wisconsin below the national average on overall financial support for civil legal aid,” Brown wrote in his article.

    Brown says that if LSC funding is eliminated, every state will suffer in relative proportion. But legal aid organizations in states without other solid funding sources would be in serious trouble, meaning far less protection for poor people and families.

    “Judicare and Legal Action of Wisconsin depend on LSC funding to serve thousands of low-income Wisconsin residents,” Brown said.

    Brown said access to legal assistance gives people who can’t help themselves a fair opportunity to protect their safety, health, housing, and other basic human needs.

    “If the two largest providers of free legal aid services in the state are forced to shut their doors, even more will be forced to fend for themselves in a justice system they don’t understand and is largely designed for people represented by lawyers.”

    Join the Fight: Become a Legal Aid Defender

    The State Bar of Wisconsin urges members to join the ABA’s campaign to support legal aid programs, including support for continued LSC funding. Those who register to become a “Legal Aid Defender” can enter a short message for their representatives in Congress. Your Legal Aid Defender card will be hand-delivered to your Congressional representatives in Washington, D.C., by a State Bar of Wisconsin representative.

    Register now to create your Legal Aid defender card.