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Small Budget Cut Deals Big Blow To Low-Income People In Need Of Legal Assistance

Courtesy of Legal Aid of North Carolina.

Jessica Guyadeen is a 39-year-old single mother of three, enrolled at Wake Technical Community College. She’s working towards an associate’s degree in social work. Guyadeen has a good home and her kids—ages 17, 11, and 9—attend decent schools but just a few years ago things did not look so bright.

Guyadeen was separating from her husband, and she needed to obtain a domestic violence protective order. She had the good fortune of running into a Legal Aid attorney at the courthouse. After Legal Aid took her case, Guyadeen got a two-year restraining order but there were more hurdles ahead. Her husband had controlled the finances. She was now on her own with a home she could not afford and no child support.

“I probably would have ended up in a shelter with my children because I had no job, I had no education at that time either, I was just starting and I didn’t even have a vehicle, I didn’t have a license. I had nothing,” Guyadeen recalled, sitting in the Student Services Building at Wake Tech.

Legal Aid attorneys worked with her on securing extensions to avoid foreclosure and to obtain child support.

“I was able to, again, start my life over and go to school and go to work peacefully because they were handling the situation for me,” Guyadeen said.

Guyadeen says as a full-time student with a low-wage job at McDonald’s she never would have been able to afford a private attorney.

But a decision by the Republican-led legislature could mean Legal Aid of North Carolina and other such organizations in the state may have to turn away thousands of clients like Guyadeen. In the $23 billion budget approved with a veto override, GOP lawmakers repealed a statute that funneled state money to non-profits providing low-income clients with legal assistance.

The repeal of the Access to Civil Justice Act cost these legal aid groups $1.6 million—a sum that amounted to what one lobbyist called a “rounding error.”

But a drop in the bucket to state coffers equals a kick in the gut to the groups that used the money to help low-income clients avoid eviction, obtain disability benefits and seek domestic violence protection.

“We will lose $130,000 a year in funding from the state, which covered a wide range of the different kinds of work we do,” said Kenneth Schorr, executive director of Charlotte-based Legal Services of Southern Piedmont.

Unless that money is replaced, Schorr added, he will have to reduce staff by two or three people—which means serving 400 to 500 fewer clients per year.

The same goes for Pisgah Legal Services in Asheville, according to executive director Jim Barrett.

“It’s just a problem for the several million people in North Carolina who live in poverty. Unfortunately those people in a complex society need access to legal services or they will not be able to avail themselves of legal remedies, they will suffer unnecessarily, some of them will die when they didn’t need to…it’s kind of hard to accept,” Barrett lamented.

Enacted in 1989, the Access to Civil Justice Act, or ACJ, provided funding for Pisgah Legal Services, Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, and the largest of the three groups, Legal Aid of North Carolina, which covers all 100 counties across the state.

Legal Aid has around 160 attorneys out of a total staff of 300.

Like the other organizations, Legal Aid serves low-income clients below 125 percent of the federal poverty level.

“So that means a family of four making about $45,000 dollars or less or an individual making less than $15,000,” said George Hausen, Legal Aid of North Carolina’s executive director.

Hausen said the $1.4 million dollars Legal Aid was getting from the ACJ funds equates to around 35 positions. Layoffs would be a last resort, Hausen said, but if that money is not replaced, and positions are either cut or go unfilled, Legal Aid may end up serving six to eight thousand fewer clients each year.

“Those people that can’t afford a lawyer are going to lose their benefit, they’re going to get a default judgment, they’re going to be evicted,” Hausen warned.

Law Enacted To Provide Low-Income People With Legal Assistance

The ACJ was enacted in 1989 with a General Fund appropriation of $1 million.

In 2001, lawmakers replaced the General Fund appropriation with a provision allotting a portion of court fees for the legal aid groups.

Legislators again added a General Fund appropriation on top of the court fees but such appropriations altogether in 2014. That left the legal aid groups with the revenue from court fees, which has now been stopped. Lawmakers did approve a $100,000, one-time, non-recurring appropriation for a veterans’ assistance program run by Pisgah Legal Services. They also preserved a portion of court fees that go to help legal aid groups with Domestic Violence cases, though George Hausen said lawmakers originally planned on cutting that too.

In explaining the repeal of the ACJ, House Speaker Tim Moore told the Associated Press he had concerns about overzealous lawyering by Legal Aid attorneys in landlord-tenant suits.

Moore did not respond to a WUNC interview request, but his communications director, Joseph Kyzer, re-framed the rationale for the budget cut.

In an email statement, Kyzer pointed out that the state funding was a fraction of what they get from the federal government and from private and corporate grants and donations.

Kyzer also noted that lawmakers did provide funds for criminal justice and public safety initiatives such as raising the age of juvenile offenders and hiring additional prosecutors.

However, George Hausen of Legal Aid says legislators are overlooking just how big a return on investment the state gets by funding groups like his.

“We make a difference in the court dockets, in the outcome for these clients, the pool of money that’s available for our client community, we increase that all the time, we protect it. We prevent even more spending on social services because we’re there protecting income and protecting benefits,” Hausen argued.

2016 Economic Analysis Show Legal Aid Groups Save State Millions

The North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission, created by the state Supreme Court in 2005, conducted a 2016 analysis of the direct and indirect economic impact of these legal aid groups. The analysis concluded that these organizations saved the state more than $52 million last year by helping low-income clients obtain food stamps, disability benefits, veterans’ benefits, child support, and avoid eviction.

Hausen said the repeal is appalling because it sends a bad message—that the state’s not interested in equal justice for all, especially the poorest people in our community.

“As lawmakers, as government we want to extol the virtues of equal justice under law. I mean that’s what we’re about, that’s our bedrock principle and I think the state needs to stand for that,” Hausen said.

For now, though, legislative leaders have decided the cause of equal justice will have to make do without an additional $1.6 million from the state.

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