Trump’s Budget: Taking Aim at Legal Aid for the Poor

In Cover Stories by S. Heather DuncanLeave a Comment

One in six Tennesseans is too poor to hire a lawyer, even when they need one: When an abused wife needs a restraining order against her husband. When an elderly person falls victim to a younger relative stealing from her. When a renter gets kicked out of his apartment for asking the landlord to fix the hole in the floor.

In Knoxville and 25 other counties, the poor can turn to Legal Aid of East Tennessee for help—but that could change if President Trump succeeds in shutting down the nonprofit that provides half of its funding. Legal Services Corporation was created by Congress more than 40 years ago in recognition that the poor and elderly struggled to find justice in civil court. In all states, Legal Services funds local legal-aid organizations that act as a civil court version of a public defender, taking only cases private attorneys would reject as unprofitable.

Legal Services would be eliminated under Trump’s proposed 2018 “skinny budget.” Because Legal Aid can’t take criminal (or immigration-related) cases, it is not covered by other legally-mandated public funding.

A 2014 study by the University of Tennessee College of Social Work for the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services found that six out of 10 low-income Tennessee households surveyed had one or more civil legal problems in the previous year. The working poor were more likely to face these problems than people who were unemployed.

Last year, Legal Aid of East Tennessee closed more than 6,000 cases and served more than 12,000 people, including 718 in Knox County alone, according to data supplied by executive director Sheri Fox.

“We change lives,” Fox says. “We enable people to stay in their homes so they don’t become homeless. We prevent wrongful repossessions of automobiles, so people can go to work, because otherwise the business and entire community suffers. When we go in and help your elderly neighbors or domestic violence victims who live in your community, it doesn’t just help them, it helps everybody…. When we get an order of protection, that reduces number of ER visits so it lowers cost of health care and reduces cost to law enforcement.”

She notes that because Legal Aid charges clients nothing, all judgments won go straight to the person who was wronged. Fox estimates the organization protected or recovered about $824,000 for Knoxville-area clients last year.

An example was a woman who realized she had actually paid more than the price of her car (and the interest) in her monthly payments. When she questioned the company, it illegally repossessed her car repeatedly until Legal Aid was able to win her a settlement in court, Fox says.

“If Legal Services Corporation stopped, we could serve about half the people we did in 2016,” Fox says. “It would be devastating.”

Those impacts could be felt in the broader community. A 2015 study released by the Tennessee Bar Association and the Corporate Counsel Pro Bono Initiative found $188.6 million in positive financial impact generated from cases handled by the state’s legal aid organizations in 2013 alone. It determined that every dollar invested in legal aid produced over $11 in financial returns to governments, businesses, and individuals across all social classes.

Even with current funding, Legal Aid can serve only 20 percent of the eligible population, Fox says. The federal Legal Aid money also pays to coordinate volunteer attorneys, who help fill in the gaps on some cases.

To reach more of the underserved, Legal Aid operates a legal advice hotline and holds legal clinics in counties across the state; recent clinics in Sevier County were focused on helping fire victims establish and argue insurance claims, for example. Fox expects the demand from Sevier County to climb for the next three years—the average for a natural disaster—as survivors cope with fire-related legal issues.

See Also: Who Gets Hurt by Trump’s Budget Cuts?

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at heather@knoxmercury.com

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